Penn Jillette Makes the Philosophical & Pragmatic Case for Libertarianism

For an anar­chist like Noam Chom­sky, lib­er­tar­i­an­ism as it’s under­stood in the U.S. is a cor­rup­tion of the term. Through­out their polit­i­cal his­to­ry, Chom­sky argues, “real” Lib­er­tar­i­ans have been anti-Capitalist—and he includes under this head­ing such clas­si­cal lib­er­als as Adam Smith and Thomas Jef­fer­son, as well as mod­ern anar­cho-social­ists like him­self. Mod­ern U.S. Lib­er­tar­i­ans like Ron and Rand Paul, Mil­ton Fried­man, and Robert Noz­ick have all meant some­thing very dif­fer­ent by the term, and cer­tain­ly haven’t agreed on what that is. So what exact­ly is Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism?

Giv­en pop­u­lar misconceptions—and some less than stel­lar pub­lic rela­tions moments—one per­haps gets a clear­est idea of what Amer­i­can Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is by read­ing about what it isn’t, as in this essay from one of its most con­trar­i­an the­o­rists, Mur­ray Roth­bard. Or we can spend a few min­utes with that vol­u­ble comedic magi­cian Penn Jil­lette, a well-known face of Lib­er­tar­i­an and athe­ist thought for many years. Jillette’s the­sis in his eigh­teen-minute Big Think video above comes down to this: “we think you should take as lit­tle from oth­er peo­ple by force as pos­si­ble and you should be able to do what­ev­er you think is right.” Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, Jil­lette elab­o­rates, “is the strongest sense of ‘please, do what you want, try not to hurt me.”

The con­cept he refers to is one Isa­iah Berlin wrote of as “neg­a­tive lib­er­ty,” or the prin­ci­ple of non­in­ter­fer­ence, a sta­ple of all Lib­er­tar­i­an thought. The heavy stress on indi­vid­ual rights has come in for cri­tique as naïve, but as Roth­bard notes, “no indi­vid­u­al­ist denies that peo­ple are influ­enc­ing each oth­er all the time.” Lib­er­tar­i­an thinkers have wres­tled with the con­flict (if not con­tra­dic­tion) between max­i­mal indi­vid­ual free­dom and free­dom from harm. Robert Noz­ick, for exam­ple, extend­ed his dis­cus­sion beyond our respon­si­bil­i­ties to each oth­er to a moral case study of our duties toward ani­mals. Respon­si­bil­i­ty stands as a key term in Jillette’s artic­u­la­tion of Libertarianism—a sine qua non of a Lib­er­tar­i­an soci­ety.

But is there such a thing as a func­tion­ing Lib­er­tar­i­an soci­ety? Or does Jil­lette describe an unre­al­iz­able utopia that depends not only on most peo­ple act­ing respon­si­bly, but also on most peo­ple act­ing ratio­nal­ly? As he him­self says, “Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is tak­ing a right on mon­ey, your first left on sex, and look­ing for utopia straight ahead.” This lan­guage aside, he doesn’t seem to oper­ate under the illu­sion that peo­ple always make the best choic­es for them­selves or their fam­i­lies. As part of his argu­ment, how­ev­er, he admits he isn’t qual­i­fied or desirous to make those choic­es for oth­er peo­ple when he can often bare­ly dis­cern the right course of action for him­self. As it gen­er­al­ly does, this course of rea­son­ing brings us to the prob­lem of tax­a­tion in Lib­er­tar­i­an thought.

Jillette’s appeal seems com­mon­sen­si­cal and prag­mat­ic, and after his gen­er­al pitch, he launch­es into a cri­tique of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism that could come right out of a Chom­sky talk—in some small part, that is. Jil­lette believes that, absent most gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence, we would have such a thing as a “true free mar­ket” in which every­one could com­pete fair­ly and with­out coer­cion. This is a posi­tion even Noz­ick soft­ened on many years after his clas­sic Anar­chy, State, and Utopia, call­ing it “seri­ous­ly inad­e­quate” and admit­ting that many demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions Lib­er­tar­i­ans want to abol­ish pre­serve “our equal human dig­ni­ty, our auton­o­my and pow­ers of self-direc­tion.”

What­ev­er we make of Jillette’s lais­sez faire ide­ol­o­gy, his cri­tiques of gov­ern­ment speak to Lib­er­tar­i­ans on either side of the eco­nom­ics divide. He makes an inci­sive case against Clin­ton, then tears into Trump’s will­ing­ness to “give easy answers.” Hold­ing up career politi­cians Bernie Sanders and Gary John­son as “paragons” may seem a bit much, giv­en Jillette’s force­ful argu­ment for a healthy and thor­ough­go­ing mis­trust of gov­ern­ment. As he says in the ear­li­er Big Think inter­view above, “part of the joy and the won­der and the bril­liance of the ideas of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca that whoever’s in pow­er is ques­tioned and beat up.”

He does not, of course, mean that last part in any lit­er­al sense. While Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism has per­haps been tarred by asso­ci­a­tion with an increas­ing­ly vio­lent right, it would be a mis­take to lump Jil­lette in with cer­tain polit­i­cal oppor­tunists who at one time or anoth­er have used the term to describe them­selves. His com­mit­ment to anti-war and drug legal­iza­tion poli­cies is unwa­ver­ing, and he makes a strong, well-rea­soned case for his pol­i­tics. It’s one worth hear­ing out whether you agree or not in the end.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

A The­o­ry of Jus­tice, the Musi­cal Imag­ines Philoso­pher John Rawls as a Time-Trav­el­ing Adven­tur­er

Noam Chom­sky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resem­bles the Rise of Fas­cism in 1930s Ger­many

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Joe says:

    “While Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism has per­haps been tarred by asso­ci­a­tion with an increas­ing­ly vio­lent right,”

    An opin­ion. Where is this ‘vio­lent right’?

    Left­ist of all stripes have a long his­to­ry of vio­lence.

  • Bella Sarah says:

    After lis­ten­ing to his hour long inter­view on the AOC Pod­cast, and this arti­cle, I’ve real­ized that being a lib­er­tar­i­an is some­thing to look into, but it’s hard to keep my ego in check at the same time.

  • Benjamin David Steele says:

    The orig­i­nal and ear­li­est peo­ple to iden­ti­fy as lib­er­tar­i­ans, and as anar­chists, were all left­ists, specif­i­cal­ly social­ists. They were those ide­o­log­i­cal­ly opposed to author­i­tar­i­an­ism and dom­i­nance hier­ar­chies. This is why it inevitably over­laps with left­ist empha­sis on egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, free­dom, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and pub­lic good.

    There is no way to main­tain cap­i­tal­ist sys­tems of large-scale pri­vate prop­er­ty, beyond small-scale per­son­al pos­ses­sions, with­out the use of vio­lent force. That is why no cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety has ever exist­ed that was­n’t sta­tist, and in many cas­es impe­ri­al­ist, from the British Empire to the Unit­ed States.

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