The free market: Burning man’s less successful social experiment

Burning Man is a big classic successful event sort of thing out in a Nevada desert. It has been getting more and more popular, but there is only room for 40,000 people. So what’s the best way to distribute 40,000 tickets among 80,000 people fairly and efficiently? They’ve always done it one way, but as demand grows, they’ve been feeling pressure for a new system.

This year they changed to an entirely new market-based system. They created a brand new social system designed from the top-down from scratch. That last clause should give you a hint that I’m not going to like it, and that I’m going to criticize it for not taking into account important things like reality. If you know me well enough, you might even suspect that this will get into libertarians.

The new system introduced a small variety of bidding and market mechanisms, all at once. The central mechanism made it so people could enter one of three lotteries at three prices: $245, $325, and $four-something (uhh $390)). It was probably designed to make a certain target amount of money.

Wait a second: wild finger-painted feather-boa’d dusty creative hippie types using the inspirations of the free market? What’s going on? Here’s my theory: Burning Man creates Burning Man enthusiasts, some of whom may be drug enthusiasts, most of whom are enthusiastic for legalization, some of whom lean towards deregulation generally which at this point makes one vulnerable to crazy things like the Libertarian myopia for market distribution. That’s my theory: the whole thing smacks of drug-addled libertarians. Their devotion to markets is very idealistic, where “idealistic” is a nice way of saying ignorant of complexity. Just to spell it out.

What could go wrong? They’re actually still not sure what went wrong. (Scalpers! Hackers! Scalpers! The Masses!).

Following phone conversations with major theme camp and art group organizers, we determined that only 20%-25% of the key people needed to bring those projects to the playa had received notifications for tickets. A number of people also told us they’d used multiple credit cards and asked friends to register for them as a way to increase their chances of getting tickets. Those who received more tickets than they need said they are considering how to redistribute them.


As a result they are probably going to over-correct and hand-pick the people to offer their remaining tickets to, a move akin to wealth redistribution, very “non-free.”

Generally, our fine notions about society are wrong. Unintended consequences are a fact of any change to an existing institution. Sometimes they matter, and they are more likely to matter the bigger the change. So what to do? Evolution gives you one nice model: cope with the incomprehensible complexity of existence with diversity and incremental changes. My favorite thing about markets isn’t their ability to crush collusion and find equilibrium, but their ability to mimic the mutation, selection, and reproduction characteristic of effective search through complex spaces, but even that isn’t everything.