Penn Jillette May Not Know What Government Should Do, But I Do

by | Aug 16, 2011

Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) recently wrote an opinion piece titled “I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian.” Penn makes several good points that aren’t spoken often enough: People try to argue that government isn’t really force. You believe that? Try not paying your taxes. (This is only a thought experiment — suggesting […]

Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) recently wrote an opinion piece titled “I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian.” Penn makes several good points that aren’t spoken often enough:

People try to argue that government isn’t really force. You believe that? Try not paying your taxes. (This is only a thought experiment — suggesting on CNN.com that someone not pay his or her taxes is probably a federal offense, and I’m a nut, but I’m not crazy.). When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force — literally, not figuratively.

I don’t believe the majority always knows what’s best for everyone. The fact that the majority thinks they have a way to get something good does not give them the right to use force on the minority that don’t want to pay for it. If you have to use a gun, I don’t believe you really know jack.

Penn is right. Government is force. Everything it does is ultimately backed by a gun. The crucial question is: How should that force be used? Should it be used against a banker or a bank robber? Should it be used against a factory owner or a fraudster? Penn doesn’t seem to have an answer to such questions:

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.

Penn doesn’t explain why this makes him a libertarian.  We can only infer that, because he has no idea what the government should do, he believes that the government should do nothing. But the fact is, government can and should do something “to help everyone”: protect individual rights.

Rights are a sanction to act without permission or coercion–to act on your own independent judgment. Rights sanction your freedom to donate to the charity of your choice or refrain from donating to any charity. Rights sanction your freedom to offer loans or widgets in the market place; the mutual rights of consumers sanction their freedom to accept or reject your offer. When individual rights are recognized and protected, each individual is free to act on his own judgment without interference from others.

Individual rights can only be violated by the use of force, by compelling an individual to act contrary to his own judgment. A thief forces you to cede your property without your consent; government does the same when it taxes you.

The only moral purpose of government is the protection of individual rights. Which means, government’s only purpose is to apprehend and punish those who violate the rights of others–those who use force against other individuals. When government is limited to its proper purpose, everyone is “helped.” Everyone is free to pursue his own life and his own personal happiness.

Penn may not know what government should do. I do know. Government should protect our rights. Nothing more and nothing less.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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