My Favorite Entertainer Penn Jillette is Fucking Wrong about Libertarianism

There's nothing sexy about government regulation. Nothing sexy about centralization. Procedure. Bureaucracy. Security. Rules. Limitations. Redundancies. Taxes. All very unsexy.

A few things that ARE sexy? Danger. Unpredictability. Freedom. Rebellion. Breakin’ all the rules. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Rollin’ the dice. Not letting the man keep you down.

But Penn Jillette will tell you -- correctly so -- that it's more important to be right than sexy. And he’ll back it up.

When gay marriage was legalized on June 26, 2015, Penn recognized a particular instance of modest government inflation coming down on the side of love. The government got a tiny bit bigger and more powerful in order to secure decency towards good people who had been getting fucked.

Penn supported the decision. He went on his podcast and declared, “Yipee!” On that day, and on that issue, Penn was not a libertarian. He was a liberal.

And that's what liberalism is all about: Making the government’s power a little bigger and a maybe little less efficient in the hopes that some people will stop getting fucked.


Penn says the government has the monopoly on force. He admits he would use a gun to stop a murder. He would also use a gun to stop a rape. He would even use a gun to stop a robbery. But – in his words -- he would never use a gun to force you to build a library.

He might beg you to build a library. He might work to raise money for a library. But he wouldn't threaten you with force to build a library.

This logic, along with the logic imparted by his inventor friend Tim Jenison, makes up the crux of his libertarian worldview. Jenison told Penn that you wouldn't punish a man for doing nothing, and therefore, rewarding him for doing nothing is, morally, equally baseless.

Penn's two-pronged justification of libertarianism actually sorta checks out on paper. But Penn has a good heart, and I think he might disappoint himself if he saw his logic play out in the field.

I’d like to offer full disclosure. I am an atheist liberal and spent a few years as a libertarian starting in 2009 – upon reading Freakonomics and rewatching There Will Be Blood – and ending on December 15th 2012 when I heard that Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut and been shot the fuck up. Libertarianism seemed like the perfect politic for atheism. It was devoid of spiritual pretense. It was evolutionary and free.

But the problem with freedom is that morality is complicated. And certain freedoms are more important than other freedoms.

For example, the freedom for me to do whatever I want is less important than your freedom from getting fucked.

True, one of these freedoms can actually be granted, and the other is an ideal. But realism is not binary. We can trade on the spectrum between inconvenience and safety with real results. We can “waste” money maintaining a thousand bridges so that two bridges don’t collapse during rush hour. Super un-sexy, to be certain. (Especially because if it works, there's no money shot. What we want to happen is nothing.) But inconveniencing one’s-self – and yes, one’s neighbor -- so that families driving on those two compromised bridges don’t get fucked... is very nearly the definition of morality.


The problem with Tim Jennison's syllogism about giving people exactly what they deserve is this. Imagine your best friend and your worst enemy are both handed a huge cash reward for winning a lottery they never entered. How do you feel? Regarding your friend, you feel great! Regarding your enemy? Fuck that guy, he doesn’t deserve shit!

Now imagine your best friend and your worst enemy are both receiving a harsh, undeserved punishment. Hard jail time or public lashings.

On behalf of your best friend, this feels like a tragedy. But on behalf of your worst enemy?

Also kinda sucks.

Any suffering you'd wish upon your worst enemy, you’d want him to suffer for a reason. A good reason. You want him to deserve his punishment. And not in some abstract karma sense. You want direct cause and effect. If you're a moral human, at least part of you sympathizes with your sworn enemy for receiving a penalty he didn't warrant, because the bittersweet joy of living in a secular world is: Everything doesn’t happen "for a reason". Everything happens because of a reason.

But pleasure and pain are not equivalent currencies in the human brain. The desire not to reward people undeservingly as justified by the similar desire not to punish them undeservingly is a false equivalency betrayed by the biases of our own social neurology. Rewards are less morally concrete. Unreasonable ones simply aren’t pathological like unreasonable punishment.

This is why Bruce Willis goes back into the redneck pawn shop to rescue Ving Rhames from a redneck rapist in Pulp Fiction, even though an hour ago they were trying to kill each other, and the only thing that’s changed is that now one of them was getting victimized randomly and suffering pointlessly. In a different scenario, Bruce Willis would never risk a similarly dangerous situation just to stop someone from ripping off un-earned court-side Lakers tickets and a case of Grey Goose. Why? Because losing some nice things to someone who doesn't deserve it falls within an acceptable window of emotional status-quo, when compared to rape.

It’s the same reason that returning to your car to find an erroneously written $15 parking ticket feels bad to a more substantial degree than finding $15 discarded on the street feels good. I'm not giving short shrift to finding money on the ground, it feels amazing. But getting a bogus parking violation after following all the rules really sucks because you’re getting fucked.

The procedure to fight your jive-ass ticket in court? That's liberalism.

It's not sexy or fun showing up in court with photos of your car next to the sign. Sometimes it's hardly worth the money. But it gives you satisfaction because this minor justice is the way things "ought" to be. The central nervous system CRAVES ought. Ought is the true boundary between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. Humans may or may not have souls (spoiler: we don’t), but we definitely have the ability to identify ought. And ought is so much less important when a human is getting unjust reward than it is when a human is getting fucked.


On the topic of governments using their monopoly on force to bully us into paying for libraries whether we want them or not. I’ll admit -- when put in those terms – it makes ya feel sorta icky about all types of government infrastructure. But I’ll keep those terms because it’s important to call things what they are. Penn's right, if you don’t chip in money towards a library, they’re gonna put ya in the slammer like Al Capone.

But being forced to chip in legal government tender for a library you don’t want is not the same as getting fucked. Getting fucked is growing up in the wrong neighborhoods of Chicago and feeling like you have to join a gang simply for your own physical safety. Getting fucked is stage-four mesothelioma as a result of being a first-responder during 9-11, and getting told by your elected leaders that there isn’t enough money for the state to help you afford the necessary treatments.

Getting fucked would be giving all your money to scientology or the ku klux klan or a psychic medium for the reason that your town simply never had any libraries.

And here’s something else that should trouble Penn. His contemporary and neuroscientist Sam Harris has discussed on his podcast and in his book “The Moral Landscape” studies which have shown the brain’s empathy for victims decreasing as the quantity of victims in a given group goes up. You’ve heard the phrase “one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic.” Well it turns out that our natural ability to relate to the suffering of others becomes diffuse after even just a handful more fellow humans are being victimized. This may qualify as a good definition for the word “immoral.”

Imagine how the brows would furl on some of Penn’s libertarian associates if I suggested that the rights of communities (groupings of humans) are just as important as the rights of individuals who make up those communities? To a libertarian this is fucking unholy! But ask yourself what’s honestly more important: My freedom to drink sugary soda every day without a tax -- or my community’s right to have healthy citizens? What’s more important: My freedom not to chip in some duckets to build a library if I don’t want to -- or my community’s freedom to have an educable voting body?

What’s more important: My freedom to buy a lethal weapon without the inconvenience of waiting periods, background checks, a mental health screening, and training certification? Or the freedom of ten community college kids in Roseburg Oregon not to get fucked?

Libertarians may not care about the freedoms of communities, but in the big picture, rights of communities -- excuse the expression -- trickle down. And utilitarianism is that wonderful belief (available not exclusively, but especially readily to atheists) in the idea that results are more important than actions. Belief that actions have no inherent spirit, but are simply a vessel by which results are delivered.

I’m not an idealist: people are going to get fucked. They’re going to get fucked as individuals, and they’re going to get fucked as groups. They’re going to keep getting fucked, over and over again. But leaving people alone is not morality. It’s the maslovian luxury for people that already have all their other needs met.

Penn Jillette isn’t an idiot, even if he’ll self-deprecateingly tell you otherwise. He want’s to do what’s right, but morality is complicated. Libertarianism is attractive because it’s simple. It’s sexy. Ya can’t screw it up.

But libertarianism is fucking wrong.