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Aside from the carbon footprint of thousands of people heading to the Nevada desert and literally “burning the man” there may be something actually illegal about Burning Man.

For the uninitiated, Burning Man is a weeklong event that attracts over 40,000 very interesting and eclectic people. You can read lots about it here. As I understand it from speaking to several participants of past events, the entire economy of Burning Man is based on a gift economy. There clearly is lots and lots and lots of economic activity there – much of the fun is in engaging in trades with people of all stripes. My brother, for example, “sells” chicken-waffles to all comers in the desert. I cannot repeat the name of his enterprise here however due to the PG-13 nature of my site.

The rub is that, as I understand it, all transactions at Burning Man at done on the premises of gifts and I think bartering. It is one of many celebrations around the country that outright eschew monetary transactions. Now I have nothing against this at all, and find it rather amusing on a variety of levels. But as a legal matter, I am not sure this is permissible under the current monetary laws of the United States. Our legal tender laws do not require that merchants accept U.S. currency ipso facto (i.e. if you show me a $20 bill, I don’t HAVE to sell you the item); but what the legal tender laws do imply is that if I as a merchant do agree to provide you with a good or service, then in that case I am not permitted to decline the offer of US currency from you. In other words, if I went to my brother’s establishment at the Burning Man and asked for a chicken-waffle, and it was provided to me, and I offered a $10 bill in exchange, it could not be refused. I am almost sure that US currency is soundly refused at many of the establishments at Burning Man.

It would also be illegal for proprietors at Burning Man to accept the dollar, but on weaker terms than they accept other forms of payment. So, for example, if I agreed to wash dishes to pay for my chicken-waffle, and that was valued at $10, which is equal to the value of the waffle (to the sellers) I consumed, the proprietors could not legally ask me to pay $11.00 if they did accept currency, or offer me a smaller or worse waffle for the $10 bill that I provided.

It must be the case that there are thousands of such events, including organized flea markets, where the use of US dollars is not only discouraged by formally or informally prohibited. Are there exceptions in the laws for these sorts of places? If so, I’d expect traditional firms to take advantage of those loopholes. And if there are not loopholes, then I would extremely pleased to see the Feds show up in the Nevada desert at the end of this summer and put thousands of Burning Man devotees in prison for violating the “law.”

And no, it’s not at all that I hold anything against them, but my strong feeling is that the only way to get rid of bad laws is to actually start enforcing them to their fullest and fairest extent. And it would be quite ironic to hear about “the Man” that is going to be burned in response to such a crackdown at future events like that.

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One Response to “Is Burning Man Illegal?”

  1. Andrew says:

    Can you quote a specific law?

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