It’s not that easy to get lost at SXSW, but I did. Not lost lost, just a little off-track; I took the wrong street on the way to Google’s strange little “Village” and ended up next to a highway.
I had barely realized my mistake when a car pulled up next to me. A woman shouted from the driver’s seat, “Need a ride?” I didn’t — I could see the giant Google Maps pin — so I waved her off. “It’s free!” As she pulled away, a man ambled over from the I-290 onramp to ask for few bucks.
This wasn’t a taxi or a shuttle, exactly. It was a private, free, sponsored car service called “Catch a Chevy,” reserved exclusively for people with orange SXSW lanyards. That’s when it hit me: I’m pretty sure South by Southwest is a libertarian utopia. WAIT WAIT WAIT, hold on, bear with me.
In favor of SXSW being a Randian utopia:
Everything is free: If you’ve got a badge you can expect to spend very little money at SXSW. Food trucks with corporate banners dole out BBQ sandwiches, gratis, and drinks flow freely from sponsored bars. Same for transportation, ponchos, clothes — you could probably show up at SXSW Interactive without any clothes.
You get this free stuff because the sponsors think you’re worth something to them and because of the kinds of people that are allowed to come to SXSW — people who work at startups, people who have money for startups, people who work in the media, and people who spent a bunch of money to be around all of the above — you probably are. It’s not altruism, it’s pure capitalism.
It’s self-sufficient: When you fork over your entry fee for SXSW, they offer to take care of everything for you: hotels, cars, whatever. You still end up paying for everything but you kind of have to try to leave the bubble. Same is true when you’re here: You’re really in Austin unless you try. SXSW is like a city unto itself, except the government is an events company.
It’s in Texas: One of the top five states for “personal and economic freedom,” according to a 2010 study by “market oriented” (read: libertarian) Mercatus Center.
It’s actually full of libertarians: Startup culture has a well documented libertarian streak, and SXSW Interactive is all about startups. There are Thielians everywhere, and they all enjoy talking about money and markets and meritocracies and whatnot.
It appears to be lawless: From the street: “Hootsuite blocks traffic by firing tshirts into a crowd, who flood the street like Walking Dead zombies.”
Is this Mogadishu?
It’s all about money: Almost everyone at SXSW Interactive here to invest, get investment, network, hire, sell, partner or announce. It’s a trade show.
Against SXSW being a Randian utopia:
It’s not all about startups: While SXSW Interactive is all about startups and tech, the rest of the show is about the arts. (In fact, SXSW was a music festival waaayyy before it became a tech thing.) I don’t think anyone would call the SXSW music festival a libertarian utopia. It’s just a bunch of cool concerts.
It bears a striking resemblance to the Gathering of Juggalos: As thoroughly explained here.
So there it is: Six to two, SXSW is an objectivist paradise, more or less.
What’s a libertarian utopia actually like to live in? It’s pretty rainy. Lots of white people. There’s sponsorship everywhere. It’s fine, I guess?
Written in part from the Google Village, where the ice cream sandwiches are free.