Penn Jillette on Atheism and Libertarianism


View photo


Penn Jillette, Hayekian magician extraordinaire, attributes his atheism and his libertarianism to the credo, “I don’t know” which sums up his take on government and god:

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

President Obama sure looks and acts way smarter than me, but no one is 2 to the 300 millionth power times smarter than me. No one is even 2 to the 300 millionth times smarter than a squirrel. I sure don't know what to do about an AA+ rating and if we should live beyond our means and about compromise and sacrifice. I have no idea. I'm scared to death of being in debt. I was a street juggler and carny trash -- I couldn't get my debt limit raised, I couldn't even get a debt limit -- my only choice was to live within my means. That's all I understand from my experience, and that's not much.

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

This is very much along the lines of Hayek’s writing on decentralized information and the inability of central planners to know what’s best for everyone or to properly gather and make use of knowledge. Markets do this organically much better since they reflect the democratized actions and knowledge and tastes of all of us.

I’m less enthusiastic about the notion that government can’t or shouldn’t help the poor, though I do think that too much welfare harms rather than helps, and that without strong private investment in communities you end up substituting jobs and self-empowerment for a government yoke.

Fundamentally, though, government is force. It is a violent institution regardless of whatever good it does at times. Three concurrent wars, the war on drugs, and the ridiculous number of Americans rotting away in prison cells should illustrate that well enough.

Yes, services provided by the state can and do truly help the poor, but the question should always be whether or not we can do better. I’m very sympathetic to my left-libertarian and anarchist friends who envision a better world, a stateless society. I’m just deeply cynical about the process. For one thing, people are much more willing to cut services for the poor rather than take on entitlements for the middle class, defense spending, or corporate welfare and subsidies. We are more likely to slash Medicaid before we slash prison funding or end the War on Drugs.

For every good idea about removing government from our lives, there’s an opportunity for the powerful to take advantage of it – deregulatory capture, if you will. The process of faux ‘privatization’ is fundamentally flawed. Private actors who simply take state services over by profiting off of taxpayer money are no different than the government, after all, they’re just for-profit government.

Penn’s essay, while enjoyable, reflects this strange focus on the poor. Why focus on how government helps the poor at the barrel of a gun? This is the least of our concerns. I keep turning back to Jim Henley’s argument on crutches and shackles whenever I hear this sort of thing, which Kevin Carson sums up so well:

If the privilege remains, statist “corrective” action will be the inevitable result. That’s why I don’t get too bent out of shape about the statism of the minimum wage or overtime laws–in my list of statist evils, the guys who are breaking legs rank considerably higher than the ones handing out government crutches. All too many libertarians could care less about the statism that causes the problems of income disparity, but go ballistic over the statism intended to alleviate it. It’s another example of the general rule that statism that helps the rich is kinda sorta bad, maybe, I guess, but statism that helps the poor is flaming red ruin on wheels.

I lean more and more toward some sort of left-libertarian framework, and this is one reason why. Another is because, like I said, government is an institution of violence and I’m a pacifist. The two are hard to square, I think, however difficult it is to imagine a truly stateless society (and I have many doubts about how this would truly work, which is why libertarianism strikes me as more viable than anarchy).

Like Jillette, I find myself increasingly submitting to the notion that I don’t know really much of anything – about government, about the universe, about god. Nobody does. There are no superheroes. I’m okay with this. But I do know (or at least I think I know) that how we go about shaping public policy has deep and profound implications on many peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

For better or worse.

View Comments (1)