Got a Question for Penn Jillette?

If you’ve read Penn Jillette’s new book God, No! and want to ask him something about it – or if you just have a general question you’ve been dying to ask him – then this is your lucky day!

My soon-to-be blog home, Big Think, is having Penn back for an interview on Friday, and they’re soliciting reader questions. Presumably, he’ll answer some of them. If you’ve got a question for him, post it in the comments on Big Think (or post it here – I’ll send them in to the overlords).

This one is mine:

Hello Penn,

Glad to see you’re doing this. I’ve followed you with interest for a long time – I met you after your show in Vegas a few years ago, though I’m sure you don’t remember. (I still have a picture of me and you, though!)

I just finished reading God, No!, and I was hoping you’d address a conflict I find in your thinking. From the book and from watching shows like Bullshit!, I know you’re an atheist who values skepticism and critical thinking. But in that book, you’ve also made it clear that you’re a libertarian who values a minimal state and considers it immoral to tax people for any other reason, even if the goal is something good like education or medical research.

From the work of sociologists like Gregory S. Paul, we know that religion and other kinds of harmful superstition flourish best in poverty-stricken, unstable, uneducated, grossly unequal societies. If we as a society don’t commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think, and to providing them some measure of peace and prosperity in this world, they’ll always be fearful, ignorant, and hungry for miracles – easy prey for any religious huckster or demagogue who comes along. And you know as well as I do how this threatens the well-being of the rest of us. Do you think that a true libertarian state could ever effectively address this problem?

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://kalamazoopost.blogspot.com Tony61

    good question; enlightened self-interest

  • Bruce wright

    Penn, should I perform an Elmsley count from right hand to left, or vice-versa?

  • hourlily

    Excellent point, Adam. I predict his answer will have something to do with the magic of the free market.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    A good deal of the uber-religiosity of the U.S is precisely because religion there is a free market.

  • Valhar2000

    I predict 3 things:

    1) He’ll be livid upon hearing this question.
    2) He’ll go on about how the question shows a harmful and dogmatic bias on the part of the questioner.
    3) He won’t come close to answering the question itself.

    We’ll see if he is better than the average libertarian, and falsifies my predictions.

  • Izkata

    “If we as a society don’t commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think,”

    “teaching them how to think”.

    Seriously?

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    @Izkata, Yes, you do have to teach people to think. To think critically at least.

  • Steven

    I don’t know what Mr. Penn’s views are exactly, but I’d be careful assuming that all libertarians are completely against things like public education. Libertarians believe in limited government, not no government at all (which would be anarchy.) I’m sure individual opinions about what, exactly, a limited goverment should or should not do varies amongst individual libertarians. The one thing they all have in common is that they don’t believe the government can fix every problem society encounters, and that when it tries to it sometimes makes things worse.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    This is not a very good question. It wrongfully presumes that things like education and medical research can only be provided through government taxation and spending. Penn would likely argue that because education and research are so important, government should take a hands-off approach.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment#8:

    I don’t know what Mr. Penn’s views are exactly, but I’d be careful assuming that all libertarians are completely against things like public education.

    They all seem to think it must be seriously reformed, such as by a voucher system.

    Slight correction: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Libertarian_anarchism
    Some libertarians are indeed anarchists, including Murray N. Rothbard, one of those first to use the word in its modern US sense.

    That would be putting it mildly. The minarchist (small state) libertarians can agree that, at minimum, government should provide national defense, police and courts.

    Well said.

    @Comment#9:

    Another good summary.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Well, that post was completely hashed…Somehow forget the way to quote. *Sighs*

  • Andrew T.

    @Steven: That’s a rather vague assertion of what libertarianism entails, since most people would fall under that definition.

    Speaking for myself, I freely admit that the government cannot fix every problem society encounters…though that doesn’t diminish the fact that there are numerous matters and services (from education to healthcare to public roads) where governments have proven more capable than private industry in fulfilling for the fair and overall benefit of society. Likewise, the efforts of government are sometimes counterproductive (the war on drugs, the war on terror, etc.) and we should work to change that. I do not consider myself a libertarian by any extant of the imagination.

    For waging a position, a definition that encompasses everyone is useless.

  • CharlesR

    ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY has written on why he is libertarian in response to Michael Shermer who wrote on the same question. In his essay, Yudkowsky writes:

    I think my actual political views would change primarily with my beliefs about how likely government interventions are in practice to do more harm than good. I think my libertarianism rests chiefly on the empirical proposition—a factual belief which is either false or true, depending on how the universe actually works—that 90% of the time you have a bright idea like “offer government mortgage guarantees so that more people can own houses,” someone will somehow manage to screw it up, or there’ll be side effects you didn’t think about, and most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good, and the next time won’t be much different from the last time.

    What makes me a libertarian is that the prospect of having that reconfiguration done by the same system that managed to ban marijuana while allowing tobacco, subsidize ethanol made from corn, and turn the patent system into a form of legalized bludgeoning, makes me want to run screaming into the night until I fall over from lack of oxygen.

    He also writes:

    I think if you sent me to an alternate universe where politicians were honest, bureaucrats cared, and voters weren’t so irrational—a world where good-idea policy initiatives tended to actually accomplish their stated goals without unexpected negative side effects—a world where the clear and visible end result of getting governments to do more and more was that economies grew faster and faster and people became happier and happier—then, in that world, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

    For him, it comes down to trust. He doesn’t trust regulators. Doesn’t trust politicians. Doesn’t trust voters. Every link in the chain is broken.

    Here is the full essay:
    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2011/09/07/eliezer-yudkowsky/is-that-your-true-rejection/

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    For waging a position, a definition that encompasses everyone is useless.

    Well geez. It wouldn’t be necessary to use such vague and shifting definitions if people would just stop pointing out what’s wrong with Libertarianism.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    That’s a great question Ebonmuse! I don’t think I can top it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @Izkata:

    “teaching them how to think”.

    Seriously?

    Yes, seriously.

    @Steven:

    I don’t know what Mr. Penn’s views are exactly, but I’d be careful assuming that all libertarians are completely against things like public education.

    Yes, well, I do know what Penn Jillette’s views are, because I’ve read his book where he discusses them. Here’s what he says about his conception of an ideal government:

    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. I would use a gun for defense, police, and courts.

    …I wouldn’t use a gun to build an art museum, to look at the wonders of the universe through a big telescope, or even to find a cure for cancer. [p.150]

  • Tim

    I think Penn already answered that question to a degree.

    Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, “No,” he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.

    He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn’t know, but he thought that made me look mean … even though I do care and do try to help.

    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.

    Adam, you make the same internal assumption that TV host did. That is, society is the only possible provider of such services, or that the services that are provided by taxation are inherently superior (due to their uniformity and level of funding through forced population participation) to those provided by the will of the self-interested. That is, you presume inherent benefit in a voting majority forcing education, yet you don’t consider the consequence of such a majority having such control.

    I don’t know what the best choice is, either. I see a lot of value in public education, and enjoy funding it, yet I take issue with forcing others to participate. Similarly, I see a lot of value in scientific pursuits. I find less value in things like art museums, but that’s me. I figure those who find such value could always pay to go to them or support them, if they’re important.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    That is, society is the only possible provider of such services, or that the services that are provided by taxation are inherently superior to those provided by the will of the self-interested.

    I make neither of those assumptions. The assumption I do make is that society as a whole is the only institution that has the power to provide those services to everyone; and that assumption, I think, is amply supported by the evidence. If there are people who believe that private largesse from generous individuals can ever completely replace the role of the state, or that it can do so in an inherently equitable and just manner, then I invite those people to compare that belief to reality.

  • Tim

    You make the assumption that services presented, e.g. education, are inherently superior when provided uniformly through funding acquired via threat of state violence for the non-compliant. Merely being capable of providing those services to everyone does not inherently justify the action needed to acquire the funding to do so. The supposed superiority of a system that focuses upon providing “equitable and just” education to all must be measured against both its means of actions and its implications. We have been fortunate in this country that we’ve won significant case law, disallowing creationism and other woo from being presented in the classroom as objective fact, comparable to the leading scientific theories. However, in a system where the majority votes to use the threat of force to provide a service, that majority can and has been known to promote anti-scientific ideals over rational belief.

    I cannot justify, in my own mind, the forced participation and payment of all parties by majority rule. Simultaneously, I do value education, and am very fortunate to have gotten out of the private christian school I attended for four years. It truly is brainwashing (someday I may submit an article based on that experience). Even with that, I remember the hundreds of kids at the high school who were obtaining practically no benefit at great expense to the taxpayer.

    I don’t know what the best answer is. I really don’t, because I envision a system that is not as formulaic as today’s, with alternatives including vocational programs and tracks based on scholastic deference/indifference. While I do think that state-funded education is the better choice for producing a society of rational, productive people, I have trouble squaring that with the moral implications of using threat of force to achieve those ends. It’s a constant struggle for me, and I’m sure if I ever get a free week I’ll sit down and try to reason it out :-\

  • Demonhype

    “an alternative universe where politicians were honest, bureaucrats cared, etc etc.”

    What about an alternative universe wherein the richest and most powerful didn’t only act in their own narrow interests at the detriment of most other people,

    wherein the richest and most powerful do not regard the common man as disposable personal property (livestock) and money as an abstract which is only valuable if they have more of it than anyone,

    wherein the richest and most powerful, when given a decision, choose the path that will help the most people and not the path that will make them more wealthy at the cost of ruining millions of people’s lives,

    wherein the richest and most powerful will actually agree to clean up any messes they make and make good any of their mistakes or wrongdoing by their own free will,

    wherein money is genuinely an accurate measure of good character and the richest and most powerful are genuinely such saints that a need for the poorer people to have legal recourse is largely superfluous,

    wherein the average person is even capable of exercising informed buying power in an atmosphere in which the richest and most powerful can use their riches and power to forcibly hide the facts about their products from the buying public and dishonestly maintain public ignorance and, by extension, support (which, BTW, negates the whole “we’ll vote with our dollars and that’s how we’ll have recourse!” argument–most decent governments, while not perfect, have a hell of a lot more accountability and oversight than any private corporation),

    wherein the average person is intelligent enough to act in their own best interests and not be bamboozled by the lie that they are simply “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” amid a nest of parasites, thereby being convinced that they must help their “friends” at the top while spitting on the people at their own level and below

    —that magical alternative universe where the magic of the free market would work.

    Which is the only universe in which the free market would work. Government ain’t perfect, but the pre-existing conditions necessary to make the free market work are a hell of a lot greater and a hell of a lot less likely to ever happen.

  • Izkata

    @ Ebonemuse & Lou Doench:

    I think you failed to understand my “Seriously?” comment.

    Teaching someone how to think means to teach someone how to think a certain way, just as if they were in a cult. If you mean “think critically”, it had better be IN the question.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Ebon]: The assumption I do make is that society as a whole is the only institution that has the power to provide those services to everyone; and that assumption, I think, is amply supported by the evidence. If there are people who believe that private largesse from generous individuals can ever completely replace the role of the state, or that it can do so in an inherently equitable and just manner, then I invite those people to compare that belief to reality.

    Private individuals could, theoretically, provide equitable and effective services to everyone. In practice, it doesn’t happen for all the reasons Demonhype laid out. If we could somehow stamp out greed, power lust, and sadism we’d have a good shot. Libertarians should start by explaining what their plan is toward that.

    In history, the closest match to a sustainable state of minimal to non-existent formal governance that has existed was tribes. That concept doesn’t scale, unfortunately, and collapsed with the growth of agriculture. New technologies always bring differential access and gaps in opportunity. No one has convincingly explained how this could be prevented without the use of force.

    Thus, the question before us is not whether power or legitimacy will be wielded in conflict with the populace. The question is whether that power will be vested in a central government whose ultimate authority is derived from the people or in many disparate private entities vying for power and responsible only to their membership.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @#20:

    What if all of those injustices you complain about (which I agree with) are themselves dependent on the state corporate welfare? I realize that many libertarians view the “free market” as just Walmart minus regulation and social welfare, but that assumption should be challenged. Walmart and other large corporations are creatures of privilege, anti-competitive regulation and subsidy, corporate welfare that is the antithesis of a free market. It does however make a good slogan. As they use “free market” as their slogan, we should question what motive there is for doing that, rather than buying into this actually being free markets.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    What state welfare does Walmart receive? Low taxes and tariffs? Lack of labor and environmental regulations? None of those change in the absence of government; indeed, they skew even farther.

    Walmart conquered the market by manipulating first mover, capital, and infrastructure advantages to consistently depress prices and wages. Due to economy of scale, once prices drop below a certain threshold all small to moderately sized competitors cannot compete. The absence of state power does nothing to prevent such consolidation; no one was forced to buy from Walmart.

  • keddaw

    America spends more per child on education than virtually any other industrialised country yet languishes near the bottom of most rankings, AT the bottom for performance per dollar.

    America has a major problem in education and (more) government is clearly not the solution. Don’t know what is, but I’m not an education expert – maybe they should spend some of that money on someone who is.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    What state welfare does Walmart receive? Low taxes and tariffs? Lack of labor and environmental regulations? None of those change in the absence of government; indeed, they skew even farther.

    http://www.hel-mart.com/docs/goodjobsfirstorg_walmartstudy.pdf

    I was actually referring to the millions of dollars in direct subsidies they have received, although the privileges you mentioned likely exist as well. In some cases they have actually been invited into areas by local governments with such privileges. In the absence of government, business has to pay entirely for everything. Notice that includes police, fire protection, transportation, etc. which is all partly made up for by other people paying collectively. They would have a far more difficult time doing things without coercion. Transportation especially-that alone kept regional economies within the US from being unified before railroads and then the interstate highway system. I am not saying it would be impossible without government, but they would have to pay the cost rather than partly externalizing it as actually occurred. Now, the argument may be they would simply become a government, but that changes nothing. We already have one that works for them. Rather, in this hypothetical scenario, let us imagine they operate solely by voluntary transactions, without initiating force.

    Walmart conquered the market by manipulating first mover, capital, and infrastructure advantages to consistently depress prices and wages. Due to economy of scale, once prices drop below a certain threshold all small to moderately sized competitors cannot compete. The absence of state power does nothing to prevent such consolidation; no one was forced to buy from Walmart.

    The point is they might not have “conquered the market” without receiving this massive amount of state aid. That skews the result significantly, even beyond what it would otherwise have been, which is unknown. People are not forced to buy from Walmart, but conversely Walmart is less likely to be able to “conquer the market” otherwise. The simple fast is the existing distortion prevents us from knowing exactly what the result would be absent government. We can only speculate.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Fact, not fast, in the last sentence of course.

  • keddaw

    If you want to check how “libertarian” these Republicans are, ask them if they would remove all patents, all state aid to corporations and open up the US to unrestricted foreign competition.

    Then you’ll see that they are corporatists, out only for the interests of whoever pays them the most, not their constituents, not you and most certainly not for the ideology of any kind of libertarianism.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Exactly right. It is only rhetoric for them.

  • Mark V

    Keddaw:

    On what grounds do you say that more government is not the solution for education? Education is clearly aligned with libertarian values as it is primarily a state and local function. Or are we redefining libertarian values again? Those countries that you feel are more successful have much more governmental control. And we are hardly at the bottom of the rankings. You might want to correct your statement.

    As for the money spent, remember that those other countries may not include the same costs in their budgets (health care, special education, etc.)

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    What exactly do you call “libertarian values”?

  • keddaw

    @Mark V, since the US already spends more per child on education than other countries the solution is not to increase government involvement but it is to follow the best available models. That will almost definitely be some form of government model, but may also have a market component, either way it will be better than the current shambles.

    In fact, the current US system shows the worst case scenario of government involvement, it is overpriced, under-performing and unwilling to change. It is unresponsive to needs, is not beneficial to students, parents or educators, due to restrictive practices it will not remove poor educators or disruptive students. While the worst case scenario with no government involvement is worse for many it is at least cheaper. But how about an effective middle ground, perhaps on the Belgian (market based) model, or the Finnish (treat teachers as highly paid professionals) model?

    Better government is always better than more government. Why it has to be a monolithic entity called government is a mystery to me – the people with the power to generate (virtually) as much revenue as they like also get to spend it how they like, they have no incentive to be efficient or get value for money. Government is no longer run for your benefit, it is time to rethink the whole setup.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X