Grover Norquist — the president of Americans for Tax Reform, which was founded in 1985 with a mission to fight income-tax increases — has wanted to go to Burning Man since 2012.
Burning Man is an annual festival of debauchery that takes place in the middle of the Nevada desert. Attendees, called "burners," often dress up in crazy costumes, waltz around naked, take copious amounts of illicit substances, and generally do whatever they want.
So, how did a conservative activist like Norquist get interested in Burning Man? He tells the story like this: A couple of years ago, Larry Harvey — the founder of Burning Man — was in Washington to negotiate with the National Park Service about land use for the festival, which takes place on federal land. Harvey later stopped by Americans for Tax Reform's weekly Wednesday meeting, and ending up going to dinner with Norquist and his wife, Samah Alrayyes Norquist. "You've got to come out!" Harvey told them.
Unfortunately, the stars did not align for Norquist that year — the Republican National Convention was scheduled for the same weekend as Burning Man. In July 2012, Norquist tweeted, "Which idiot put the GOP convention the same time as 'Burning Man' in Nevada? Is there time to change this?"
"It wasn't doable with schedules and so on because the Republicans put their convention right on top of Burning Man, silly people," Norquist told National Journal on Tuesday. "That's why they probably lost the election."
Two years later, Norquist is finally crossing that item off his bucket list.
In a month, he and his wife will set out for Black Rock, Nev. — a barren, 300,000-acre desert that transforms into a hedonic metropolis for one week every August. (For more background, read Wells Tower's excellent story in GQ about his trip to Burning Man).
After Norquist announced Monday his plan to attend the festival, many reacted with disbelief, or simply declared, "Burning Man is dead." But Norquist insists that the drug-filled utopia in the desert shares some common values with his own group, Americans for Tax Reform.
"Burning Man was founded in '86, the same year as the Pledge, and the first Burning Man had 20 people at it, and our first Center-Right Meeting — the Wednesday Meeting — also had 20 people. So I think there's a real kinship there," Norquist says. "These are very similar operations, except we tend to wear more clothes perhaps at the Wednesday Meetings."
Burning Man relies on a "giving economy" where attendees are encouraged to give goods and services free of charge — a system that Harvey has called "old-fashioned capitalism." And this is hardly the first instance of capitalists like Norquist being drawn to Burning Man. In recent years, Silicon Valley's elite, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have flocked to the event.
Norquist says the festival is a good example of the theory of spontaneous order. The theory, which was promoted by Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek, holds that a natural structure will emerge out of a seemingly chaotic environment without need for outside intervention.
"There's no government that organizes this," Norquist said. "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."
"This is a fun, exciting, cheerful collection of people being free of state control and doing stuff they want to do," he continued. "If somebody wants to sit in a corner and read Hayek, I think that that's allowed. If people want to run around with not as much clothes as they normally do, I think that's allowed as well."
Once he gets to Black Rock, he doesn't have an objective. "I'm going to chat with people who have done it before and who are there, and go with the flow," he said.
In the past, Norquist has supported federal tax breaks for marijuana growers. So, will he be partaking of the buffet of drugs that Burning Man has to offer?
"I think lots of things should be legal that I don't do," he tersely replied.
Norquist said he needs to figure out what items to bring to contribute to the "giving economy," and joked that he would bring signed copies of his new book. But he admitted that in the playa, a bottle of water is more valuable. That's the beauty of the market at work.