Burning Man: Experiencing Rationing

Susan and I went to Burning Man this year for our first time. We had a wonderful experience together with our friends Cindy and Robin (who is an experienced Burner and acted as our guide). There are many justified criticism of Burning Man and the festival will likely to have to change substantially over the coming years (a subject for a future post).

Today I want to write about the absence of prices at Burning Man. Once you get to Black Rock City, everything is free (well, not everything, as ice was $20/bag – more on that shortly). People have written about hopes and aspirations for a gift economy before but my key takeaway was about the importance of allocation mechanisms.

Without prices at Burning Man everything is rationed. You can go have a free drink at any of the bars (remember to bring your own cup and your ID – yes, that’s strictly enforced). But the bartenders will pour you a limited amount and then send you on your way. Same goes for all other goods and services. There are defined quantities available and that’s what you get.

Now “rationing” has a negative connotation but it isn’t inherently bad. It is a different allocation mechanism that has pros and cons when compared to the price mechanism. One advantage is that rationing treats people equally independent of their financial means, which can be desirable from a social cohesion perspective (well, rationing does that at least in theory – back (Read more...)