Further Thoughts on Penn’s Libertarianism

The last thread about Penn Jillette’s book sparked some debate, so I’d like to revisit the topic. This is what Penn says is his view of the legitimate powers of government:

If I had a gun, and I knew a murder was happening… I would use that gun to stop that murder. I might be too much of a coward to use a gun myself to stop murder or rape or robbery, but I think that use of a gun is justified. I’m even okay with using force to enforce voluntary contracts. I would use a gun to protect the other people who chose to live under this free system. If I were a hero, I would use a gun to stop another country from attacking us and taking away our freedoms. [p.150]

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. We started out with Penn declaring that, in an ideal world, he would heroically use a gun to stop a murder, rape, or robbery. Fair enough, I can get behind that. But then he slides to “enforcing voluntary contracts”? That job may be useful to society, even necessary – but is it heroic? Why is that a more legitimate use of force than the ones he decries?

For instance, why isn’t it equally “heroic” to help the sick and the needy? Why isn’t it heroic to contribute to building hospitals, schools, libraries, shelters? Personally, I think it’s pretty damn heroic to cure someone of cancer, give them a warm bed to sleep in, or get them a heart transplant. A libertarian like Penn might say that there’s no merit in doing this if our support is compelled, but it’s not at all obvious to me why using guns to enforce voluntary contracts is intrinsically more admirable than using guns to build hospitals or schools.

Penn says he likes libraries but wouldn’t object if someone else thinks he has a better use for his own money than spending it to build a library. Well, I can say the same thing: Why should my money be spent on judges and courts just to resolve byzantine legal disputes between massive corporations that have no effect on my life? (The vast majority of lawsuits are filed by corporations suing each other, not by private individuals.) What if I think I have better uses for my money than paying men with guns to enforce voluntary contracts? For example, I can easily imagine an anarcho-libertarian viewpoint which holds that damage to one’s own reputation should be the only penalty for breaking a contract.

Or, an even more pertinent example: What if I think I have better things to spend my money on than the police or the military? What if I’m a pacifist and don’t believe in having an army at all, or what if I just believe that military spending is too high as it is and disproportionate to any threat our country actually faces? What if I believe the police are unfairly arresting innocent people and want to withhold my funding in protest? Is that a choice I would have in Penn’s ideal libertarian state, or would it result in “men with guns” showing up at my doorstep? If the latter, then it seems Penn doesn’t believe, after all, that each individual is the best judge of how to spend his or her own money.

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 hysterical, ridiculous “men with guns!” meme works both ways. Using this emotionally charged phrasing, I could say, “There’s great joy in running my own business and providing a service that people want and need, but there’s no joy in doing it if libertarian government thugs are holding me at gunpoint and forcing me to contribute to this free-market economy.” (If you don’t think that would happen, try imagining a person living in a libertarian state who declares he doesn’t believe in private property and, say, plants a garden on a plot of unused land legally owned by someone else. The guns would come out very quickly, I assure you.)

I would use a gun for defense, police, and courts. Well, well, I’ll be hornswoggled, that’s pretty much what the Founding Fathers came up with.

Actually, if you want to get technical about it, our founding fathers came up with quite a bit more than just that. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of public schools and libraries. President John Adams signed into law a bill establishing a government-run health care system for sailors, funded by payroll deductions (yes, really), which in its broad outlines isn’t all that different from modern systems like Medicare.

More to the point, of course, the founding fathers didn’t permanently enshrine a minimal state, nor did they claim to be infallible. They left us a living Constitution which can be changed and amended, precisely because they knew that future generations might see necessities they overlooked or correct errors they made. To name an obvious one, the founding fathers also didn’t seem to have a problem with using guns to enforce slavery – a glaring error which we’ve thankfully corrected.

If there’s an argument to be made for a minimal state, it’s going to have to be a better one than a subjective list of what seems most “heroic” to one person. It’s inherent in all democracies that the majority will sometimes vote for a course of action, such as establishing an income tax, that not everyone will agree with. That’s not necessarily an infringement of human rights; it’s the inevitable consequence of having a social contract. And even though not everyone can always get their own way, the social contract of democracy is – should be – sustained by the recognition that we’re all better off, on average, living in a democracy than we would be under any other kind of government. If that bargain is intolerable to you, you’re welcome to seek a country that’s more congenial to your viewpoint, whether it be a cooperative communist utopia, a benevolent theocracy, or a completely free libertarian market-state. And if there are no countries which fit your chosen model anywhere in the world, well, there just may be a reason for that.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.