Pen Jillette and His Libertarian Legerdemain

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics
Tags: , , ,

I don’t generally like to talk about politics here, since that’s usually when assholes show up and threaten to disrupt my naturally cool demeanor.  But Penn Jillette wrote this piece for CNN, and I felt like I had to answer it.  I felt this way for two reasons:  the first is that I really like Penn & Teller, and the second is that I think he’s cheating.

I’ve been a huge fan of Penn & Teller, as magicians, since I was a kid.  I had How to Play in Traffic, and it was my first introduction to how a clever speaker could set up a person’s expectations in such a way as to fool them; it was like a weird manual to the underside of art and language, and I loved it.  I saw them live at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, and I still point out the brilliant linguistic intricacy of Penn Gillette’s routine on broken bottle juggling — how it’s not only true that broken bottles are far more dangerous to juggle than fire clubs, but how his continued explanations simultaneously both undermined and reinforced themselves.

They signed my Hoyle brand Three of Clubs, and I still have it in a little plastic frame I keep on my desk.

But I started to sour on them (on Penn, mostly, because he’s the one who usually does the talking, right?) after their episode of Bullshit — a show which I generally found to be pretty deadly smart — about global warming.

I’ll admit that I’m someone who believes in the validity of anthropogenic climate change, but my problem here isn’t that Penn was disagreeing with me.  It’s that the whole premise of his arguments — that ACC was overblown, hyped up, and just a regular part of nature — was hinged on co-founder of The Weather Channel John Coleman (I think it was this one, and not the other) and his explanation of global warming’s relationship to sunspot activity.  And, here’s the kicker: in the episode, Penn actually narrates over Coleman’s explanation with a bit of “Blah blah blah, this is just boring science stuff, who cares?”

If you want to fight about climate change we can, and if you want to make fun of some harmless hippie who’s just trying to help people find ways to conserve energy, then fine, you can do that, too.  But if you expect me to go along with it, then you’ve got to have a reason, and you’d damn well better let me hear what it is.

This is when I started to get a little suspicious of Penn and his arguments, and when I started to wonder just how much legerdemain was going on.

His CNN article is actually a perfect example of it.  He invokes Richard Feynman, great avatar of the intellectually curious and self-avowed atheist, to establish some ground rules.  I guess a magician might call this The Pledge.  He uses that argument — that there’s no shame in not knowing something — to defend his atheism.  It’s a strong argument with lots of precedent; even true believers admit that some questions don’t respond well to being addressed head on, and there’s no shame for an atheist to respond to “How did you get here?” with “I don’t know.”

But then Penn takes the argument and does a little magic trick with it (a Turn?  I never studied magic properly).  He uses it to ALSO justify his Libertarianism — a political philosophy that, in his particular case, seems to run the gamut from not approving of taxes to not approving of the existence of fiscal policy to not approving of things like Social Security or Medicare.

What’s tricky about it, though, is that while it’s framed with a philosophical, agnostic argument — “I don’t know the best way to help people” — it actually turns into a moral argument:  that it’s actually wrong for the government to at gunpoint take your money and give it to someone else.

This is an extreme characterization of the government, but it’s not completely incorrect.  The problem with it is in the phrasing as a question of agnosia.  Saying that it’s immoral for the government to help people — that it’s immoral for me to expect him to pay a Social Security tax so that senior citizens don’t starve when they’re too old to work, and that the only moral action for me to take is to give them my own money (i.e.:  nothing, so that they can starve) — is completely different from saying that you don’t know the best way to help people.

The key element here is one that Penn himself brought up early on in his patter when he invoked Richard P. Feynman:  when Feynman didn’t know the answer to something, he tried hard to figure it out.

We actually live in a country that is built from the very ground up on the idea that we might not know the best way to help people — but that it’s our job, our responsibility, and our right to try to figure it out.

We’re supposed to forget about this bit, though.  This is the Prestige, discreetly dumped off in the corner somewhere where it won’t come back to haunt the argument.  Because the fact of the matter is, whether or not you know what to do about the US’s AA+ credit rating, we still have to do something.  Throwing up your hands and saying, “Well, no answers here, let’s just call it quits on this whole USA thing,” is still a choice — it still implicitly suggests that you think this course of action (whether or not you know it) is better than another course of action.  You can’t say, “The US should default on it’s loans rather than raise taxes because I don’t know what the right choice is,” because you’re still picking one choice over another.

It’s bullshit, and I suspect that Penn Gillette KNOWS that it’s bullshit.  Maybe he’s terrified of debt, sure, but can he really not know how he might have lived with debt?  People in America live with enormous deficits all the time.  They’re called “mortgages”.  Car loans.  Student loans.  Credit cards.  Sure, Penn couldn’t get his credit limit raised when he was a broke and starving carny, but America isn’t a broke and starving carny, and are we really supposed to believe that he can’t get his credit limit raised NOW?  Now that he’s rich and famous and writing articles for CNN?

The morality of this is questionable in general, but the morality of using “I just don’t know” as an excuse not to make a decision is execrable.  We had to go in to debt to fight World War II — we had to go into a LOT of debt.  You can say that debt is wrong no matter what, and you can say that no sacrifice would have been too great to fight that war, but don’t try and tell me that not knowing how it will turn out absolves you from picking a side.

What, exactly, does he think that Congress is supposed to do with its power to impose taxes to provide for the general welfare?  With its ability to borrow on the full faith and credit of the United States?  Is the purpose of the Constitution to empower a body of men to get together and say, “You know, I’m not sure whether or not we should feed the hungry, let’s just collect our salaries and go home”?

I’m going to sound a little jingoistic here, so bear with me while I make my point, but if you think that’s the way the country’s supposed to be run, then you need to pick a new one, man.  I’m not saying this in an “America, love or leave it” way, and I’m not saying that you need to be a socialist Democrat for me to count you as an American, but if you don’t believe that the government has a right to impose taxes and to empower a body of men to TRY TO FIGURE OUT the best way to spend them — then you don’t believe in the essential compact of a Democratic Republic.  You do not believe in the actual mechanics of our government, and that means that yeah, you actually DON’T believe in America, and that you want to back out of the deal you made when you turned 18 and enjoyed the full benefits of American citizenship.

That deal isn’t explicit — they don’t make you sign a contract or anything — but if you want to be an American citizen then, at some level, you have to accept the notion that the American government — and its powers enumerated in the Constitution — has a moral right to exist.  And if you don’t want to be an American citizen, then hey, that’s cool, too.  You can renounce your citizenship.  You can give it up, they won’t come hunting for you.  There are plenty of other places you can go to — places that don’t have taxes, places where no one tries to figure out the best way to provide for the general welfare, places where the only good done is done individually, places that are not founded on the principle that a government has the power to levy taxes and that the people will elect representatives to determine how those monies are spent.

Hey, man, Somalia has starving people, too, and you could probably help those guys out a lot with your personal Will to Charity.  Just, obviously don’t use American dollars, since the only reason they have any value is because they are the product of an essentially immoral system.

Or else, you need to stop trying to play tricks on the folks who still listen to you, and just fucking admit that you don’t like paying your taxes.  And if that’s the case, then that’s bullshit, too.  No one likes paying taxes, but that’s what civilization MEANS.  You don’t know anything about compromise or sacrifice?  Let me tell you:  in civilization, you sacrifice a portion of what’s yours for the sake of the general good.  This is a compromise between an autocracy that takes everything from you, and an anarchy that shoots you in the face and leaves you to rot in a ditch.

Or, at the very least:  if you don’t know, and you aren’t willing to guess, and the best that you can do is try to disguise your own morality under a thin veneer of intellectual credibility, then at the very least you can shut the hell up.

  1. SB7 says:

    I don’t want to get into a big politics argument here, but I can’t resist making three points.

    1) Regarding the legerdemain: I can’t speak to Jillette’s sleight-of-hand from “we don’t know the answer” to “let’s not bother to figure out the answer.” But for me, “we don’t know the answer” does lead pretty naturally to “we are not capable of selecting a single, right answer, and such a single answer may not even exist.” Again, I don’t know what Jillette would say, but this libertarian objects not to trying to find an answer, but that the modern American state insists that there be only one answer — one drug policy, one health policy, one approach to education, etc. I think agnosticism supports having heterogenous government programs better than it does having no programs at all.

    2) I have many things to say about the social contract of America, but in the interests of keeping this brief I will stick to this: there is no opting out. America is one of two (three? reports vary) countries which tax ex-citizens. If you ever want to set foot in America again you must accept a vast portion of the deal that was inked before you were born. I think accept-or-leave is groundless, but even if it weren’t, there isn’t a legitimate leave option.

    3) Lastly, a compliment: you resisted Gell-Mann Amnesia when watching Bullshit. Well done.

  2. braak says:

    1) The system is designed to accommodate that, though. If you think the answer’s wrong than you can say it — I think Social Security is a good way to provide for the elderly. You can say, “I think it’s a bad way, here’s a better way, let’s do that instead”, and that’s fine, that’s a legitimate position. But what is NOT a legitimate position is “I don’t know if this is a good way, so let’s not do anything.”

    I mean, actually you can say that, but then what you’re really saying is, “I think doing nothing IS a better thing to do, let’s do that,” so at least say it and don’t pretend that it’s rooted in agnosticism. If this is a moral question, then it *can’t* be about agnosticism, since morality is about what you, and not doing something is still doing nothing.

    2) I don’t know what part of the tax code says that the US can tax ex-citizens, but I’m surprised that it has any legal grounding, since non-citizens aren’t subject to income tax generally, and specifically even American citizens get a foreign income tax credit for money they earn overseas (the US is one of the few countries in the world to offer a tax credit like that).

    But I’m not talking about accepting any particular policy or philosophy of government except the literal one that America is based on — the one of a democratically-elected government that provides for the general good (however that’s determined) through taxation. If you don’t believe in that, then you very much need to come out in favor of the dissolution of the Constitution and of the elimination of the United States of America as anything except a geographic region.

    Which would ALSO be fine, and even respectable — I like Emma Goldman a lot, for instance, and she made no bones about the fact that in her world there wouldn’t be any governments at all, US or otherwise — but you’ve got to be willing to say it. And the only reason that Penn Jillette DOESN’T say it is because he’s playing a narrow game here — appealing to “patriotic” anti-government zealots who’d be appalled at the notion of actually dissolving the Constitution and every state government (which is, after all, just a Federal government writ small).

    It’s bullshit, simultaneously offering up the advantage of not having to pay taxes, while ignoring the fact that it would mean the sacrifice of what many people who’ll read that article hold dear to their hearts.

    This isn’t about the deficit, or the debt limit, or about taxes — all of those things are legal and built in to the very structure of the American government. So, why is his article about debt limits and taxes? Why doesn’t he come out and just say he wants to burn the whole government to the ground and return to a clan-based system in which everyone fends for themselves, or in small familial groups?

    I don’t think it’s completely groundless to ask why someone like Jillette — who certainly has the means to relocate to somewhere that isn’t going to tax him — continues to participate in a system that he finds immoral when he doesn’t have to. But even if there are grounds for why OTHER Libertarians don’t pack up and leave, I think the least they can do is come out and say they want to burn the flag and throw the Constitution in the garbage.

    3) I generally only read the newspaper for the funnies, anyway.

  3. braak says:

    Because, especially: if Penn Jillette opposes taxes on moral grounds, then he’d still oppose them even if Social Security could be shown to be a verifiable good. That means the issue isn’t that he doesn’t know if it’s good — it’s that he doesn’t care if it’s good.

    It’s still a valid moral position, it’s just not the position he’s pretending to have.

  4. braak says:

    Also, though, good point that this isn’t Libertarian Legerdemain, it’s specifically Penn Jillette’s Libertarian Legerdemain. I will change the title to reflect this.

  5. Lolly says:

    This might well be the best argument dismantling the most annoying postulates of libertarianism. I often feel like libertarianism gives otherwise intelligent people espouse dickish ideas under the guise of “it’s about my freedoms, man”. Also, the whole “US taxes ex-citizens” thing is nonsense. My millionaire ex-boss renounced his US citizenship specifically to avoid paying US taxes (he lives in the UK). Anyway, no country could enforce taxation of non-citizens – hell, it’s roughy enough for people who actually live here. And yes, as a former expat I can confirm that the foreign income exception is the shizz.

    Sorry, this is all a bit rambly and incoherent, but libertarians make me want to bang my head against the wall.

  6. John Jackson says:

    “but if you want to be an American citizen then, at some level, you have to accept the notion that the American government — and its powers enumerated in the Constitution — has a moral right to exist”

    The people who hate taxes also tend to believe a national income tax is unconstitutional. It’s not exactly clear who is right. The constitution is a 200 year old compromise between aristocrats who wanted to protect their own and a few who wanted to create a political philosophy (mostly based on protecting your own). It’s been outdated for awhile and holding it up as ‘what America stands for’ becomes this horrible argument because it stands for whatever interpretation of it you want it to stand for. This may just be me being an anglophile, but I don’t think a written constitution is a good idea to found a nation on. And if you do use one, treat it like the French and rewrite it every sixty years.

    As for the ex-citizen tax, I’m pretty sure most nations only collect income tax from residents, be they citizens, subjects, or migrants. The US doesn’t do it that way. Yes, they collect from all residents, but also from all citizens. If you’re a legal resident of, say, the UK for three years and earn money and pay taxes while there, you owe tax money to the US on that income when you return. This is probably why they offer that rare foreign income tax credit, because only three other nations actually tax non-resident citizens. I didn’t know it also applied to ex-citizens, but I’m not surprised. It blindsides those who return from foreign residency, because you already paid income tax on that money (unless you were in a nation that doesn’t have income tax).

    Also, I think our tax code is mostly 100 years old with far too many addendums and loopholes.

    The only episode of Bullshit I saw was on Wal-Mart, and it was definitely a one sided pitch to agree with him. Maybe I should look into the earlier magic shows.


  7. […] Pen Jillette and His Libertarian Legerdemain « Threat Quality Press. 18.08.11 • Back to front […]

  8. braak says:

    @John: I think the constitutionality of the federal income tax is a complete red herring. Of course it’s constitutional; it used to be unconstitutional, but then we amended the Constitution, and now it isn’t. Saying that it’s illegal because it wasn’t in the original document would be like saying that suffrage for women, or non-landowners, or black people is unconstitutional.

    It’s a sleight-of-word argument, because the idea of the income tax’s illegality is only a justification for eliminating it on the grounds that taxation is fundamentally immoral, anyway — and if it’s immoral for Congress to levy an income tax to provide for the general welfare, then it should be neither more nor less immoral to levy any other kind of tax or tariff or excise (all provided for in the original, unamended Constitution).

    But I’m not saying that the taxation system that we have is implicitly good — that it isn’t without flaws and doesn’t need to be updated periodically (or constantly); I’m saying that some system of taxation and governance is the entire point of having a country in the first place.

    And, anyway, I don’t know what you’d say America stands for if you didn’t have the Constitution. What accomplishments can we boast that aren’t a direct result of it? Or military prowess? Our famous religious tolerance? Our status as the first modern democratic-republic nation?

    I don’t know how many people get blindsided by the Foreign Tax issue; it’s one of the first things Turbo Tax asks you when you sit down to do your taxes. “Did you earn this money overseas? Don’t worry! The IRS provides for a tax exemption for income that’s already been taxed by another country!” But, again, I’m not arguing that the tax code shouldn’t be adjusted — just 1) that it’s ultimately an essential part of the social compact that makes civilization possible, and 2) Penn’s arguments against it are fundamentally moral ones, but disingenuously disguised as practical ones.

    I saw an episode of Bullshit that I really liked — it was about how feng shui barbers and interior decorators were bullshit, and they did a bunch of experiments like finding a pair of twins and having one get a feng shui haircut and one get a regular haircut, and then seeing how many people liked the feng shui haircut more; or hiring a bunch of different feng shui interior decorators to redesign a living room, on the grounds that if feng shui were a science (as claimed) then every designer should come up with roughly the same design.

    Of course, it doesn’t necessarily prove that feng shui really is bullshit (it actually does have specific rules, for instance) but it does show that there’s a reasonable number of people who just add “feng shui” onto something that they already do in order to make it sound cool.

  9. John Jackson says:

    Oh right, I forgot about the amendment–the unconstitutional argument was wrong of me. I’m all for the moral duty of a nation to care for the general welfare, but because American laws and the Constitution is all compromise and haggling, you wind up having an amendment that says the national government can levy an income tax, but the tax code says it’s only required based on the state income tax laws. A few people have gotten off tax evasion charges because of that legal argument. It only works in states with no or voluntary income tax, but apparently it has worked.

    I think I was saying the people are blind sided because they’re living and earning money as residents of a foreign country, so they never file US income tax, because they don’t live or earn money here. It is a common assumption.

    Sorry to devolve into an argument, because otherwise I’m with you. Twisting an agnostic argument into a moral argument with faulty logic is pretty devious.

  10. SB7 says:

    1) The system is designed to accommodate that, though. If you think the answer’s wrong than you can say it — I think Social Security is a good way to provide for the elderly. You can say, “I think it’s a bad way, here’s a better way, let’s do that instead”, and that’s fine, that’s a legitimate position.

    Sure, I can *say* “let’s do it this way, not that way.” But I don’t actually get to do it this way unless I can get 51% of the other people around me to agree. Sometimes that’s fine — if we must choose only one answer this is a fine way to go about choosing which one. But we have lots of ways to feed and clothe and house ourselves. Plenty of diversity there. Not so much diversity when it comes to K-12 education or health insurance or pharmaceutical approval or immigration or raw milk or marijuana any of the other decisions big and small made in Washington.

    But what is NOT a legitimate position is “I don’t know if this is a good way, so let’s not do anything.”

    I mean, actually you can say that, but then what you’re really saying is, “I think doing nothing IS a better thing to do, let’s do that,” so at least say it and don’t pretend that it’s rooted in agnosticism. If this is a moral question, then it *can’t* be about agnosticism, since morality is about what you, and not doing something is still doing nothing.

    You translate “I don’t know if this is a good way, so let’s not do anything” as “I think doing nothing IS a better thing to do, let’s do that.” I think I could just as easily translate it as “I am not convinced by the evidence that any of these approaches has benefits and costs which outweigh status quo, so let’s not force everyone to do any one of them.” It’s not unlike the precautionary principle (though I think its more guideline than a true principle).

    Yes, “doing nothing” is still something. You are right that not making a decision is making a decision. But it is a decision that does not close the door to other people making contradictory decisions.

    That might not be agnosticism, but I think it is epistemological humility.

  11. mbourgon says:

    One quick comment on part of it:
    I remember that episode, and I seem to recall that it wasn’t the co-founder of The Weather Channel, but rather the co-founder of Greenpeace.

    I believe they also had Bjørn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”.

  12. […] via Pen Jillette and His Libertarian Legerdemain « Threat Quality Press. […]

  13. Brendan says:

    I just want to point out that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare, not what you wrote below.

    “What, exactly, does he think that Congress is supposed to do with its power to impose taxes to provide for the general welfare? “

  14. braak says:

    So, what, “promote” in this case means it should stand by like a cheerleader, and shout “huzzah!” when the general welfare is provided for by someone else? In context they mean the same thing; the difference is tetrapyloctomy.

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