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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Is Burning Man Really a Government-Free Zone?

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Flickr user Julia Wolf

Last week, our friends at National Journal reported on Grover Norquist’s announcement that he would be attending this year’s Burning Man event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. This was noteworthy for two reasons:

  • Norquist is a buttoned-down, conservative, Washington-based longtime anti-tax activist.
  • Burning Man is an annual artistic adventure in radical self-expression in which attendees, as NJ put it, “dress up in crazy costumes, waltz around naked, take copious amounts of illicit substances, and generally do whatever they want.”

So what attracted Norquist to the event? Well, Burning Man also professes to be an experiment in “radical self-reliance,” which “encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

That concept apparently appeals to the anti-government crusader in Norquist. (He’s famous for advocating cutting the federal establishment “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”)

“There's no government that organizes this," he told NJ. "That's what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature."

But is it?

Not really, argues Tom Berman at Vice. First of all, the federal government has a rather prominent role at Burning Man. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management enforces a series of rules and regulations governing the closure of federal land for the event. (The document containing the restrictions runs to 20 pages.)

On top of that, the structure under which Burning Man is set up and run looks suspiciously like a government. An official Burning Man Organization serves as an overall governing body. Ticket sales function as a tax on participants. A Department of Public Works implements a formal “city plan,” and stays around for for weeks afterward to restore the Burning Man site to its pre-event condition. The Black Rock Rangers are “facilitators of public safety,” a mellow version of a police force. The Emergency Services Department provides fire, medical, mental health and communications services. There’s even a Department of Mutant Vehicles to register Burning Man’s “art cars.”

All of which just goes to show that when it comes to providing a secure, free community in which basic needs are met and humans’ worst impulses are restrained, a little government (and, sometimes, a lot) apparently comes in handy.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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