Grover Norquist Explains Why He’s Going to Burning Man

“Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.”

A bicycle rider makes it through a dense sand storm at Black Rock City's playa during the Burning Man Festival in Nevada on September 1, 2000.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
July 29, 2014, 8:25 a.m.

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.

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