Penn Jillette’s Peaceful Shortcut to Libertarianism

Famous entertainer Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller recently gave a speech to the Cato Institute about how he became a libertarian. His libertarian epiphany story is one of my favorites because it reminds me of my own. Penn didn’t come to libertarianism because he was a capitalist or a right-winger or even an economist. Rather, he came to libertarianism from a “purely hippie point of view”. Penn considered himself to be a liberal (in the modern sense), but he also believed in peace. And essentially, he became a libertarian when he realized it was most consistent with his emphasis on peace.

We’ll get to the details in a minute, but first, it’s worth noting that this is not the standard path to libertarianism. Speaking anecdotally, I think it’s safe to say that most libertarians began as conservatives and then started to take the idea of limited government seriously. This inevitably leads them to question military wars abroad and the war on drugs–not necessarily because they are morally wrong, but because they require a massive government bureaucracy to implement and may curtail everyone’s freedom in the process. Then, since conservatives typically agree with libertarians on taxes and economic regulations at the outset, it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge to be full libertarians.
By contrast, the path from the left is much harder. The reason is that most people on the left do not share the conservatives’ innate bias against high taxes or big government. Their focus is on outcomes–reducing inequality, protecting the environment, and helping the most vulnerable. If big government and high taxes are needed to achieve these ends, they would have no objection. Thus, the process of becoming a libertarian from the left means learning how expanding liberty (and shrinking government) is actually a more effective way to achieve all of these goals. There is an overarching theme if you’re looking for it, but it’s largely a case-by-case struggle. It usually requires of lot of good economics to understand that government actually inhibits progress towards everything that the left holds dear. 
My own libertarian epiphany story doesn’t clearly fit with either of these extremes, but it’s much closer to the latter path. I grew up identifying vaguely with the left because I lived in a conservative, religious state, and I wasn’t religious. At the time the 2008 election campaign began, I was far more interested in sports than politics. Ron Paul’s campaign changed that almost overnight–especially when I discovered the Giuliani moment. My key issue was a peaceful foreign policy, and Ron Paul was its most effective and consistent advocate. So I became libertarian-ish; I liked what Ron had to say on most issues, but I wasn’t convinced on the entire libertarian platform.
In particular, the last holdout issue for me was the environment. I knew the economics of the Coase Theorem and the problems with regulations in general–freezing innovation, benefiting established corporations, and pushing up prices for everyone. But, having been personally involved in a few environmental activism campaigns in college, this was an area where my emotions still carried the day. I’d look at an issue like labeling GMOs or greenhouse gas emissions, and I’d suspend all skepticism about government effectiveness. I literally cringe to think of it now because my argument was the one that I now dread most, “This issue is just too important to leave to the markets (or freedom)”.
So why I am telling you all of this? Because ultimately, I got over my last barrier to libertarianism in much the same way that Penn Jillette did. With the help of a close libertarian friend, Penn came to understand that government is defined by its monopoly on legitimate force. And then, because he believed so strongly in peace, he could only justify government force being used in a bare minimum of circumstances. It’s well worth reading or listening to in full, but here’s the key excerpt:

Then [my libertarian friend] started saying, “You know, you’re so against force. You’ve never hit anybody in your life. You’ve been beat up. You’ve been in carnival situations that have gone badly and people have hit you and you’ve not hit them back because you didn’t think it was life threatening. You are insanely peacenik in terms of the way you see war, what the country should do. Why do you think it’s so OK for the government to use force to get things done that you think are good ideas?” 

I started thinking that one really good definition of government is that government is supposed to have a monopoly on force. The government is the guys with the guns, and we are the people who tell the government what they can do. So in my morality, I shouldn’t be able to tell anyone to do something with a gun that I wouldn’t do myself.

Now I want to add here that I am incompetent and I am a coward, so this is all theoretical, what I’m about to say — but if you asked me: Would I use a gun to stop a murder? Yeah! Would I use a gun to stop a rape? Yeah! Would I use the threat of a gun to stop a robbery? Yeah, I think you kind of have to. Would I use a gun to protect our country and our way of life? Yeah! 

Would I use a gun to build a library? No!

 …

And that is, in a nutshell, my entire view of politics: that I have to look over what people want the government to do and say “If I were given all the power, would I use a gun to accomplish what they want to accomplish?”

When the issue is cast in stark relief like that, it can seem hyperbolic. But we all know it’s technically true. Some people might abide by some regulations because they genuinely agree with them. By for everyone else, they’re doing it because they have to. And if you fail comply with the regulations, no matter how trifling, force can ultimately be used against you–maybe your property will be confiscated, maybe you’ll be sent to jail by armed police officers, or if you’re lucky, maybe it will go unenforced. We don’t often think about it that way, but it doesn’t change the reality.

This is the beauty of Penn’s explanation. It’s shocking and true at once. And essentially, it offers a shortcut for peaceful people on the left to become libertarians. Hayek and Smith and Mises are all great, but you don’t need to believe in the invisible hand to believe in liberty. You just need to believe in peace.

And that’s how I got over my support for government regulations on the environment; I applied this same reasoning. Here in Portland, Oregon, there were many regulations to choose from, but I started with one of the most obvious. Like many large cities, Portland recently implemented a ban on plastic bags within city limits. When I first moved here a few years ago, I thought this was a great thing. I’d read enough on the subject to know that the actual environmental benefit of paper over plastic bags is pretty negligible. But it was less about the policy itself, and more about what it symbolized. I was living in a place that shared my environmental ethic, so they would and could pass substantive laws to help the environment.

But then I applied the force test above, and the allure quickly faded. Would I use a gun to force someone to give me my lunch in a paper bag instead of a plastic one? No. Would I use a gun to force someone to drive a more fuel-efficient car? No. Would I use a gun to force someone to subsidize my bus pass? No.

If you believe in peace and keep asking those questions, then before you know it, you might be a libertarian too.

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