Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Regarding Penn Jillette's Libertarianism

I am taking a look at three claims that Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) made in a recent opinion piece on CNN.

"I don't know" - Penn Jillette

The first, which I covered in The Egotistically Arrogant Unwarranted Claim to Knowledge concerns the virtue of admitting that one does not know. The second, which I covered in Regarding Penn Jillette's Atheism concerned the claim that atheism can be founded on not knowing how the universe came into existence.

In this posting, I will discuss the that not knowing how to help the poor and sick justifies libertarianism.

Penn writes:

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.

JS Mill used an argument much like this in his defense of freedom in the book "On Liberty". Mill argued that each of us is the best informed and least corruptible agent regarding the fulfillment of our own desires.

If I were to be given control over your life, the first problem you would encounter is that I will continue to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of my desires, given my beliefs. This means that when I make choices regarding what to do with your life, I will be directing your actions towards the fulfillment of my own desires.

You might be lucky in that my desires may included a strong desire that you be healthy and happy, or a strong desire to fulfill my duty with a belief they my duty is to serve your interests. The fact that I will act in such a way so as to fulfill my desires given my beliefs does not necessarily imply that will enslave and abuse you. Though nothing necessarily rules out the possibility either.

Even if I am a particularly kind person with a strong interest in your welfare, we have a second problem. I don't know what your welfare is. You have had a lifetime of data to use in figuring this out. Every conscious moment of every day you are conducting research as to what fulfills your desires. On the other hand, I can only acquire this information through observation, and only when I am not distracted by other concerns.

Think about the simple act of deciding what you would want for supper. I could guess at what you like, but the best way for me to know what you wanted for supper would be to ask you.

It would be foolish for you to trust me to run your life.

In fact, if I were truly a kind person interested in your welfare, I would want to turn the job of running your life over to the best informed, least corruptible agent available, and that would be you. If I have little or no interest in doing that, then I probably have little or no interest in your welfare.

However, this argument has limits.

First, it only applies where it is the case that the agent is, in fact, the most informed and least corruptible agent. It doesn't apply to small children, for example. They are not granted liberty precisely because they lack the information and experience necessary to determine their interests - particularly long-term interests.

Second, there are conflicts of interests. There are cases where one person, acting so as to fulfill his own desires, would act so as to thwart the desires of others.

Consider the following situation:

An airplane crashes in the desert. The pilots, seeing that the plane was going down, land it near a lush oasis in the desert.

As it turns out, the oasis is owned. The owner uses the water that the oasis provides to run a huge network of fountains, fill a half-dozen swimming pools, water a massive tropical garden, fill several aquariums, and water acres of green lawn. In other words, he has a lot of water.

The owner, like all agents, will act to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. However, he has no desire to help the survivors. When he is told that the people from the crash will die without water, he shrugs his shoulders with indifference.

Or, perhaps, he sees this as an opportunity to sell water to the passengers. The price that would bring the best profit, he thinks, would be $10,000,000 per cup. There are a few people on the plane who could actually afford this. Everybody else has to do without. If he provides any charity to those who cannot pay $10 million per cup, then those who can pay would refuse to do so.

Now, let us assume that you also live near the crash site. You would like to help the survivors, but you lack the resources to help much. However, you have the capacity to get water from the estate to the survivors of the crash. Perhaps you work at the estate. Perhaps you are its sole security guard.

Penn seems to be arguing that there is some rule written into the very fabric of the universe that demands that the airplane survivors stay on their sand dune than die, rather than redistribute the water-wealth from the oasis owner to the crash survivors.

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

If the debate over whether or not your action of getting water to the survivors would count as "compassion", then all we are doing is arguing about the definition of words. That is a conversation we can put off until after we make sure that the survivors get some water.

If, instead, the question is one of whether some mystical rule is written into the very fabric of the universe that condemns the act of getting water to the survivors as "immoral self-righteous bullying laziness," no such mystical rule exists. The people who need the water may have the water.

This does not contradict any of my earlier points that we are each the most informed and least corruptible agents in running our own lives. It simply adds the fact that what potentially fills the desires of one agent may thwart the desires if others.

In this example, I have also negated Penn's claim that we do not know how to help others. In this case, we clearly do know how to help the crash victims.

I would also argue that on a planet that has one billionaire, and a million people who need a $4.00 shot to avoid serious health problems, we also know how to help. We take $8 million from the billionaire (leaving him $992 million), and give the people their $4 shot, spending (in this example) another $4 million on administrative overhead and logistics.

Let us not pretend that we have to fold our arms and let a million people die because we "do not know" how to help them. We may not know beyond all possible doubt, but we know beyond all reasonable doubt.


dbonfitto said...

Regarding the use of force to redistribute food to the poor as bullying: Isn't it also bullying to use government force to protect private property?

I'd like to pass Penn Jillette a note that says "We're all in this together. True or False. Circle one."

mojo.rhythm said...


You are spot on.

The right to private property is a not a natural right of man; rather, it is a very specific social institution designed to keep things well oiled and running.

Consider a possible world where there is just one person: Harry. Harry lives on the planet Namur. He looks around him. There is a vast beach, with crystal clear water, blue skies, palm trees, etc.

What if he suddenly declared "this beach is MINE!"

What would that even mean? How on earth could the beach become his private property if there was no other sentient agents around that could respect that right?

Just goes to show how much of a social construction they are.

Rob said...

Exactly! The second someone decides some bit of matter is "property," unless we want to ascribe mysterious new properties to this matter, we pretty much need a referee to decide which bits of matter are whose. Well, sometimes we won't like the ref's decisions.

Cue guns.

Anonymous said...

This is often known as 'life boat ethics'. The conditions of a life boat or desert oasis where desperate survivors attempt to squeeze resources from some miserly hoarder isn’t very comparable to civil society. The guy seems to have a good grasp of the limits of managing other people’s lives and does a good job acknowledging the perspective. This is rare with people who strongly disagree. However his contrived crisis condition and his pretend solution of taking $8 million from a billionaire to definitively solve a huge social problem are absurd. If it did work, we would just do it and be done with it.

People are tribal in nature. We evolved in relatively small groups where communal sharing was an important attribute. We all descend from people who were capable of co-existing in small groups without money. Sure the biggest and the meanest sometimes took more than their share. But for the most part we are the offspring of socially compatible people. We aren’t comfortable with the existence of billionaires co-existing with starving babies. We just aren’t evolved to accept this.

However, communal sharing just doesn’t work with billions of people. Allowing each person to choose for themselves and their love ones seems to provide the conditions for the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people. Penn Jillette or myself isn’t going to convince anyone who thinks the best way to create the greatest wealth is to seize the wealth of the few and give it to the greatest number of people. Where this has been tried it has failed – not on the level of ‘economic stress’ we are feeling – but with wholesale starvation and murder. And it was the poor who suffered the most.

Libertarian economics isn’t built in an isolated crisis in a moment of time. It’s based in a continuity of time with trillions of individual choices. Just as traffic laws aren’t based on trying to help the most needy or particular outcomes for select people. We benefit from cooperative rules that we all abide by and punish those who cheat or worse act in a way that threatens the physical safety of the community.

Well… I’m just going on and on. Personally, my
favorite on the subject is still Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose”.

dbonfitto said...

What's interesting to me is that the more wealth you have, the more you tend to benefit from government interference.

Once you have more wealth than you can protect as an individual, you've got to start paying others to protect it for you. You also have to pay them enough that it's better for them to protect your wealth than it is to steal it.

A wealthy libertarian either ends up an autocrat or a hermit.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Note that there is a significant difference between your defense of libertarianism and Penn Jillette's defense.

Penn argued that libertarianism is justified because he does not know how best feed the starving and provide medical care to the sick.

Your argument is that libertarianism is justified because we do know how to best feed the starving and provide medical care to the sick - and that method is by adopting the principles of "libertarianian economics".

Your claim that libertarian economics is "based in a continuity of time with trillions of individual choices."

Well, there are two types of libertarian economics - and advocates of the two types are often at each other's throats. There are the natural-rights libertarians (e.g., Ayn Rand - these moral principles are written into the very nature of the universe as natural moral laws), and utilitarian libertarians - we should adopt these rules because they maximize utility.

Natural rights libertarians hate utilitarian libertarians because of the implication, "If it were the case that libertarianism does not maximize utility, we must leave libertarianism and seek utility." Ayn Rand had some very harsh words for those who grounded libertarianism on utilitarian principles.

(As for me, I reject both "natural law" and "act utilitarian" theories in favor of a form of virtue ethics called "desirism". But the utilitarian argument against natural-law libertarianism still stands.)

Cash said...

I'll take credit for the comments attributed to Anonymous. I had left this post as a Facebook comment when a friend posted this link.

It comes a little more adversarial than I would have posted here. Especially the 'third person' tone as though I wasn't acknowledging the author.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I had actually assumed that somebody had posted an answer that they had received from a third party. That was the best explanation that I could come up with for the third-person tone. That it was actually written in the third person.

Cash said...


BTW, in the past Penn has described himself as an Anarcho-Captialist which is yet another faction of Libertarians.
Without digging too much through the Rand philosophy, I found it broke down based on the theme of the early part of your posting. She believed that a person, presumably her, could objectively determine the rational values every person on earth. One only has to view the havoc to took in her personal and professional relationships attempting to determine ‘the one truth’ agreed to by only a small group of people. The ‘utility’ broke down significantly.
I do consider myself a Utilitarian Libertarian. Unlike Rand who felt she could prove the validity of free market capitalism, I think we have to be satisfied with trying to find what works best in a world of vastly disparate values. While it might be comforting to some to have the ‘right way’ handed down on high through logical proofs or divine proclamations, we don’t seem to have that luxury.
Milton Friedman was the ultimate Utilitarian Libertarian. So much so, he did not find it practical to declare himself a Libertarian. While technically an economist, much of what he had to say relied upon Libertarian politics. I do believe given the nature of mankind, the most ‘naturally functional’ form of Government and the one that leads to the greatest wealth and happiness is the one that recognizes the dignity individual choice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you” is a credo we can all live by.

dbonfitto said...

Shouldn't the response to the answer of "I don't know" be "Let's find out?"

If libertarians don't know how to help the poor, what's wrong with setting up some experiments and measuring some results?

More Democritus, Less Plato.

mojo.rhythm said...


Giving up libertarianism does not entail centralizing all the means of production and putting them into the hands of the state. There is a third option: direct worker control.

It doesn't mean you have to give up markets either. But it will entail that everyone gets something closer to a fair share than what we have right now, under semi-neoliberal capitalism.

dbonfitto said...

Like plants in a garden, I think we're finding out that some pursuits work very well in the free market and some need government structure to grow.

R&D, education, space exploration, health care, national defense, and disaster recovery are pursuits that really tend to do well when they've got government protection and encouragement.

Dark Star said...

If lower-taxes are better, then zero taxes would be even better. And if zero taxes are so good, NEGATIVE taxes would be even better, and the most negative we can go would be -∞. Therefore, rather than the government taking taxes from individuals or companies they should clearly issue us all infinite cheques of credit. Right?

If the conclusion seems absurd then perhaps there is a balance to be struck somewhere? Is that balance at zero taxes? Which leaves every person to protect and defend themselves as it was in the Old West? Can't we conclusively rule this case out based on History?

We need to consider others cases on their merits. We've been down this road, we've seen people suffer and die en masse.

We found that collective taxation, WITH APPROPRIATE SAFEGUARDS, was superior for building infrastructure and providing for the collective protection and education of citizens (and indeed, society benefits as a whole from these things).

Have we screwed some of these things up? Absolutely, let's fix them - but let's not be absurd about it.

Every person for themselves simply DOES NOT WORK. People do not know or do what is best for themselves and their families. They fuck it up with extremely regularity, they beat their children, they steal, they rape, they murder. They need help.

The solutions that work for distributing water, don't work for distributing food, and solutions that work for distributing food, don't work for distributing medicine, etc. It's a giant fucking mess, it's complicated, and "one ISM fits all" ideologies are not just F'ING STUPID, they are profoundly harmful.

Capitalism is a JOKE. Socialism is a JOKE. Communism is a JOKE. Libertarianism is a JOKE. Conservatism is a JOKE. Liberalism is a JOKE. CLEAR THINKING is what is required - not ideology. Not big-government, not small-government, the RIGHT government.

And we also know the other extreme doesn't work - you can't put someone (or a small group) in ultimate authority over everyone for they fuck it up. There has to be a balance of powers with checks and regulations and all that other messy stuff that we find in our society (and some we need more of and some we need less of).

It will NEVER be perfect - it CANNOT be perfect - there is NO perfect society. It is messy and ugly with conflicting interests, values, and desires.

Punting and saying you don't know, therefore let's go back to a system that was conclusively demonstrated to be an abject failure, is a lazy cop out.

mojo.rhythm said...

Dark Star,

Right on.

Let's campaign for a political system where evidence decides, not opinions.

Does affirmative action work or not?
Look at the evidence.

Should we control guns or not?
Look at the evidence.

Should the US attempt to build nations or should it mind its own business?
Look at the evidence.

Should we attempt to preserve the "traditional family" as the norm, or is it okay to allow gays and lesbians to get married?
Look at the evidence.

Should we have single-payer insurance, a government-regulated system with a public option, or total free-market health care?
Look at the evidence.

Should university be publicly subsidized and free, or should students fund the expenses of their education?
Look at the evidence.

Should we have fiat currency or commodity money?
Look at the evidence.

Should we have progressive taxation and a strong welfare state, or flat tax and limited government?
Look at the evidence.

Do unions destroy jobs and the middle class or do they strengthen them?
Look at the evidence.

Should we have standardized testing in schools or not?
Look at the evidence.

Are public schools the way to go, or should it be all charter schools, with vouchers?
Look at the evidence.

Should the War on Drugs continue, or should we think about decriminalization?
Look at the evidence.

Should economic policy be supply-oriented or demand-oriented?
Look at the evidence.

In what situation is it appropriate to use government force?
Look at the evidence.

Is more democracy a good thing, or is it just another tyranny: the "tyranny of the majority?"
Look at the evidence.

Bottom line: facts first, then ideology. Facts are stubborn things. Ideology can be changed.

Anonymous said...

"We're all in this together?" FALSE. If I have two working eyes and you have none, that does not make it OK to deprive me of one eye so that you can see.

dbonfitto said...


First, let's go ahead and assuming eyeballs are a transferable form of wealth. I loved the old Clash of the Titans movie.

If folks with two eyes aren't going to use those eyes to protect the lives and well-being of the blind, why should the blind respect the ownership of the eyes?

If we're not all in this together, why should the eyeless folks respect the property rights of the binocular folks? You've got to sleep sometime and when you do: pluck, pluck.

If the social contract doesn't go both ways, there is no social contract.