Penn Jillette on Election 2008

A little while ago, I spoke with Penn "Bullshit!" Jillette about election 2008, not too long after he cut a video endorsing Bob Barr for president. Before the polls open (well, in that diminishing part of the country that doesn't do early voting), here are his thoughts on the Most Important Election in the Universe.

reason: You said in 2007 that [1996 and 2000] Libertarian candidate Harry Browne was "as crazy" as you were, and thus was the perfect candidate. What did you mean?

Penn Jillette: Bob Barr is not crazy enough for my taste. Harry Browne had a kind of purity to his craziness. I couldn’t find anything in Harry Browne’s platform or his books that I disagreed, which didn’t seem exactly right in a presidential candidate.

Bob Barr is good guy. His conversion, I believe, is sincere. I believe all of that. But once in a while you want that Obama factor, of a guy who grabs your heart, like a rock star. Barr doesn’t do that for me like Browne did. Still, you know, there’s no trait we should celebrate more than changing one’s mind.

I do wish Barr had been more in agreement with me on sex and drugs. That always bothered me a bit. I’m for gay rights, boring monogamous rights, but I’m also for two guys fucking on the floor of my office. I don’t think Barr is. Although I don’t do drugs I’m ok with shooting heroin, and I don’t think he is. Someone smarter than me—I want to say it was P.J. O’Rourke—said if you’re going to go with a Republican or a Democrat, the person isn’t important. If you go with a Libertarian, you go with a nut, because if we do win somehow the first 16 years of Libertarian rule will be spent at the barricades, just rolling back stuff.

reason: LP Vice Presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root has a theory that America's gamblers are natural libertarians. You work out of a casino. What do you think?

Jillette: I don’t like poker but, intellectually, poker is a really good way to talk about libertarianism. Do you think people have the right to bet on card games with their own money? If you say yes, you are a libertarian. Poker is a better example for people, to me, than drugs or sex: it’s a pure intellectual argument. It’s a really good entry point. My mom, if you asked her if she was interested in whether or not people gambled, would say no.

Every poker player is smarter than me. I’m not sure if that’s true of every serious drug user. Poker is one of the smaller issues, and it doesn’t really matter like the drug war matters, but symbolically you have to ask: Does somebody have the right to go into room and win or lose money with a group of like-minded people? It’s a really good test. It’s a real easy one.

reason: You were critical of the old newsletters that were revealed during the primaries, but on balance was Ron Paul good for libertarians?

Jillette: The basic underlying premise of that question I disagree with. I believe in individual rights so much that I don’t like any sort of “what’s good for the cause”-type question. A little while ago I was at skeptics, atheists conference and a question like that came up. How do we best win people over? As soon as we ask that question, we’re pigs. We have to leave open possibility that other side is right. Even as we call them assholes!

A lot of people listened to Ron Paul and a lot rang true to them. A lot of what he said, I agreed with. But my job professionally, my job as human, my job as an American citizen is not to do what I can to further the libertarian cause. If Obama came out and said “when I’m elected I’d make government as small as I can” I’d really get behind him. I’m not trying to get Libertarians elected. I’m even uncomfortable telling people who to vote for.

reason: But you'd enjoyed the Paul movement (or moment)?

Jillette: I was just thrilled! I love it when people are seeing a point of view that they’ve never seen before. I had people coming to me and explaining RP’s positions in a way that I couldn’t explain them. I loved that! I love listening to somebody talk about liberty so much better than I ever had. I am such a believer in marketplace of ideas. What troubles me most about politics is this feeling that you shouldn’t waste time with anyone but the frontrunners. The fact that we had this little glitch in the system, that people might listen to somebody else who wasn’t at the top of the polls, it just fills me with such incredible joy to think about it. There were people who considered me a nut for not going with one of the two major party candidates who were, all of a sudden, supporting Ron Paul.

The thing is, I don’t think any of libertarian ideas are very far out of actual spirit of our culture. The reason I use the word “nut” positively is that I think a lot of people really do believe in libertarianism, and small government, and they just need to be told that it’s OK. Paul found ways to say talk about it. I don’t think winning or even running a good race was that important. I don’t even think the million-dollar fundraising days were important. What was important was people being able to say in their own words stuff I agree with about individual rights. I think we need somebody that has charisma and clarity to make people think that’s ok. I have always, like the singers and songwriters of country western music, identified with the losers. A lot of people are not like that. A lot of people watch the Olympics to see people pick up medals.

reason: Why did you declare that you'd vote for Barr, then?

Jillette: The truth is I will vote for him, and the truth is I am talking to him, but that doesn’t mean I will be spokesperson for him or a leader for his campaign. He can say I support him. Obama wants Oprah on his side not only because Oprah is a million times more powerful than me, but because she’ll say “Yippee! Yee-haw! This is the one!” You don’t want me as your spokesman, because, sure, I’ll say government should be smaller, but I’ll say something weird on immigration or on all the sex stuff. That’s not what you want if you’re running for office.

reason: Both Barr and Paul ran on the premise that our liberties were disappearing, fast. Do you agree with that?

Jillette: I am the most optimistic person alive who says “motherfucker” on a professional basis. There are more optimistic people out there, sure, but they don’t do that. I think the individual American culture of freedom and rights is very, very strong. There’s no doubt it’s being eroded by the people in charge right now. Our vigilance is always required. But our culture still includes basic lip service to individual liberties.

I don’t worry too much about this because I don’t want to live a life based on fear. I will not counter the insanity of the PATRIOT Act with an overblown fear of my rights being taken away. Bush had more power than he should have had, but I won’t go through the hate thing that Kerry and Gore used to rev us up against him. Browne was just perfect to me—able to make the case against this stuff very strongly, yet he did not seem to be using tactics of hate and fear.

reason: If a Libertarian actually won the presidency, what would you want from him?

Jillette: George Washington, after fighting an impossible war and giving up all that time in his life, after becoming one of the richest people around—when he had a chance to take power, he asked to be Mr. president. Everyone else–would have asked to be called “your excellency.” If and when we get a Libertarian president, the first act has to be bold as that. We just need a few lucky breaks. Imagine if Barr or Paul fought and worked hard enough to be standing up there with Obama and McCain, if someone was using that platform to talk about giving back power and control to the people. It’d be the coolest thing. It can happen again!

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  • Joel||

    Boy, Teller's looking good!

  • ||

    Obama wants Oprah on his side not only because Oprah is a million times more powerful than me, but because she'll say "Yippee! Yee-haw! This is the one!"

    QFT

  • ||

    Most important info was left out:
    Who's the chick in the pic?

  • ||

    Boy, Teller's looking good!

    And as an added bonus, he doesn't speak.

  • Kaiser||

    Good interview. I have been a long time fan of Penn (& Teller) From his radio show, to his Vlog, to Bullshit! It's all great stuff.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Yeah, I loved all Penn's extracurricular projects, too. I can see, though, where folks would be turned off by his tendency to ramble.

  • Geotpf||

    Compare and contrast:

    The article has the following quote in it:

    "I'm for gay rights, boring monogamous rights, but I'm also for two guys fucking on the floor of my office."

    Yet, one of the ads on the left is a Yes on Proposition 8 (the anti-gay marriage thing out here in Cali).

    Methinks that somebody's ad buy is not properly targeted.

  • Geotpf||

    No, the other left (namely the right).

    Doh.

  • Les||

    Indeed, why is Reason taking money from the bigots behind Prop 8? Somebody help me understand!

  • Mike Laursen||

    They're not taking the ads directly. An ad placement agency (probably Google) is matching up ads to keywords on the Hit & Run web page. Happens all the time on Hit & Run.

  • Mike Laursen||

    And most other web sites that have ads.

  • ||

    Reason is taking money from a advertising firm. They have no control over the actual ads shown.

    p.s. Believe it or not, there are many "libertarians" out there in favor of Prop 8. I think they are all misguided, but not overt bigots. Quite a few think that voting "no" is to cast an explicit vote to get government further involved in marriage. Oh, and both sides are deliberately lying in their ads, so you can't cast one side or the other as being above reproach.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Oh, and both sides are deliberately lying in their ads, so you can't cast one side or the other as being above reproach.

    Brandybuck, what is the No on 8 side lying about?

  • Les||

    Thanks for explaining, guys.

    I wouldn't suggest that the anti-8 guys are "above reproach," and I agree that some folks voting for 8 aren't necessarily against equal rights for homosexuals, but the people who put it on the ballot are simply bigots and should be called out as such.

  • ||

    Disco inferno.

  • Thane Eichenauer||

    Any campaign can buy ads. Why turn down money from people who don't agree with who subsidize a Libertarian media source?
    I've seen a few McCain ads on Libertarian web sites. If he wants to subsidize libertarian efforts that is OK with me.

  • John Wright||

    Penn Jillette epitomizes what I believe (and the manner in which I believe it) more than almost anyone else I can think of. I find it interesting to hear him say he's not "smart"; he certainly is. But his ability to proclaim 'bullshit' and complain about the idiots of country and world, yet not to do so with cynicism or pessimism - to be genuinely happy with life anyway in a 'fuck it' kind of way - very accurately represents the kind of libertarianism I espouse.

  • ellipsis||

    I fail to understand why Barr is being marginalized by so many self-professed libertarians, Jillette notwithstanding. Here is a mainstream candidate that can do worlds of good. But he fails the purity test, so of course he's not the chosen one.

    Yeah, I'm looking at you, Weigel. You report on Barr so much one would think you'd be, you know, voting for him.

  • ||

    John Wright:

    Nail. Head. Good point. Thank you.

  • rhywun||

    I agree that some folks voting for 8 aren't necessarily against equal rights for homosexuals



    Sure they are. They are voting expressly to deny gays a right which they currently possess. The "I want to get government out of marriage" excuse is a cover--where were all the calls to get government out of marriage 20 or 30 years ago?

  • ||

    What a refreshingly non-douchebaggy perspective.

    I believe in individual rights so much that I don't like any sort of "what's good for the cause"-type question. A little while ago I was at skeptics, atheists conference and a question like that came up. How do we best win people over? As soon as we ask that question, we're pigs.

    That is great. It's a tough sentiment to express, that extreme dislike for controlling others. Unfortunately, it is also a sentiment that is in short supply.

  • Les||

    rhywun, I suspect you're right. I don't see any difference in denying marriage to homosexuals to denying marriage to mixed race couples.

    Thane,

    How far would you take that argument? Ads for White Supremacy movements? Ads from Fred Phelps's church?

  • ellipsis||

    Who's the chick in the pic?



    Monica Seles

  • Mike Laursen||

    I fail to understand why Barr is being marginalized by so many self-professed libertarians, Jillette notwithstanding. Here is a mainstream candidate that can do worlds of good. But he fails the purity test, so of course he's not the chosen one.

    The only reason I'm not voting for him is his immigration stance. I'm not saying that he's not a libertarian because he has the wrong views on immigration, or that other libertarians shouldn't vote for him because of it. It's just an issue that is important to me. In that sense, it's not a purity test.

  • ||


    The only reason I'm not voting for him is his immigration stance... [I]t's not a purity test.



    So you agree with him on everything except immigration? Agree on (n - 1 / n * 100)% of the issues? And it's not a purity test?

  • Mike Laursen||

    I'm not insisting that anybody else has to agree with me to be a good libertarian. That's why I said, "In that sense, it's not a purity test."

  • Robert Goodman||

    I don't see any difference in denying marriage to homosexuals to denying marriage to mixed race couples.


    I do. Marriage between different races was subject to an explicit prohibition; nobody ever denied it was possible for persons of different races to marry, or a prohibition on it wouldn't've been needed.

    Same sex "marriage" (not marriage to homosexuals, which is a different issue), rather, is a matter of getting gov't to alter the agreed-on legal meaning of the words "married", "spouse", etc., in a way similar to what had been done previously with "dollar", "pound sterling", etc.

    Prohibiting marriage to homosexuals (of the opposite sex) would be another version of an explicit prohibition of an action which is acknolwedged to be possible.

    It is the failure of analysts to grasp the distinction above which leaves me as one of the very few people who understand this issue, and it's why you should pay att'n to me rather than anyone else concerning it. Sorry, can't be modest here, it's one of those "cower, mortals" things (like Lost) where I really do understand more than practically everyone else, even though so many are making noise about it.

  • svf||

    The only reason I'm not voting for him is his immigration stance...

    What, is it too "moderate" for you or ...?

    I mean, he basically says fine, bring 'em on, as long as they pass a criminal background and health screening, right? And he's not for rounding 'em up and shipping 'em home. Seems entirely reaonable to me (though I'm an open borders guy philosophically speaking)...

    Or are you a "lock down the border" guy?

  • Mike Laursen||

    Maybe he changed his stated positions. Last time I looked, he was advocating locking down the border and revoking birthright citizenship. (Basically, he adopted Ron Paul's immigration plank in its entirety.)

  • Mike Laursen||

    Nope. Just checked. He still wants to do away with birthright citizenship. And buying into the meme that immigrants that illegal immigrants are just coming here to get on welfare.

  • Les||

    Marriage between different races was subject to an explicit prohibition; nobody ever denied it was possible for persons of different races to marry, or a prohibition on it wouldn't've been needed.

    In Californa, nobody is denying that it is possible for persons of the same gender to marry, which is precisely why Prop 8 seeks to prohibit it. Your confidence in your understanding of this issue seems misplaced.

    So, why is it wrong to deny couples of different race the ability to marry, but it's not wrong to deny couples of the same gender the ability to marry?

  • ||

    Your vote for Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr is 'guaranteed' to improve America's future! If he gets at least 5% of the popular vote in tomorrow's election, his party's Presidential campaign in 2012 can receive millions of dollars in voluntary taxpayer funds. It will also automatically qualify to be on all state ballots, thereby avoiding long and costly signature petition drives. So do the 'most patriotic good' with your vote, help America build a 3rd major political party!!!

  • ||

    I'd like Bob Barr to explain to me where in the Constitution it says that the Federal government has authority over immigration, as opposed to the explicitly granted power to determine uniform rules for naturalization.

    In opposing birthright citizenship for children of non-citizens, Barr at least advances a proposal to deal with a question that the Federal government is constitutionally empowered to settle. But the issue of whether the Federals can kick people out "just because," or can deny entry to this country absent proof that the persons are crossing the border or living here in order to act as invaders or to break our criminal law, has only been settled with the judicial equivalent of "yes, because we say so." If you think otherwise, go back and check out the relevant court cases, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s.

    In the C-SPAN broadcast of the Cleveland City Club 3d Party Debate with Nader and Baldwin, I heard Barr say that anyone who was coming in for a peaceful purpose should at most be checked at our border for contagious diseases and criminal records, quickly and efficiently, and then sent on their way. As long as the criminal background check is only to catch known fugitives and neither extensive nor stringent enough to exclude people for overtime parking, jaywalking, overdue library books, etc. -- e.g., comparing their faces against mugbooks of known fugitives who might currently be trying to cross international borders -- that works for me. On the other hand, a DB containing everyone's "permanent record," which is available to customs agents, does NOT work for me. It didn't sound as if Bob had that kind of thing in mind, either.

  • svf||

    He still wants to do away with birthright citizenship.

    He said it's "worth exploring" I belive. And it is. And since it would take a constitutional amendment, I don't think you need to worry about Emperor Bob Barr singlehandedly implementing this idea.

    And buying into the meme that immigrants that illegal immigrants are just coming here to get on welfare.

    You're reading too much into it, but regardless I think you'd probably agree that a more open legal immigration policy can only happen once the welfare state is minimized and (ideally) eliminated.

    But whatever, apparently you DO have a litmus test on immigration policy so good luck with that.

  • ||

    Brandybuck, what is the No on 8 side lying about?



    They vehemently deny that marriage is not a part of the state school curriculum. Yet teaching "respect for marriage" is indeed a part of the curriculum. They claim that gay marriage will never be taught in any public school ever. Yet it already has been taught in a San Francisco school.

    This isn't just a throw away line in a single radio spot, it is the centerpiece claim of nearly every print, radio and television ad opposing Prop 8. A pox on both houses, one side is engaged in hyperbole and scaremongering, and the other is lying and prevaricating.

    p.s. Not that I expected anything nobler from political ads. Liberals are scumbags just like conservatives, they just smile and condescend more.

  • Neu Mejican||

    It is the failure of analysts to grasp the distinction above which leaves me as one of the very few people who understand this issue, and it's why you should pay att'n to me rather than anyone else concerning it. Sorry, can't be modest here, it's one of those "cower, mortals" things (like Lost) where I really do understand more than practically everyone else, even though so many are making noise about it.

    Les deconstructs this premise nicely.

    Having been in attendance at several same sex marriages, I am pretty sure it is possible for them to occur.

    Some definitions that everyone agrees upon.

    Spouse = the person one is married to.
    Marriage: "When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition until death do them part."

    Alternate definition
    marriage
    noun
    1. the state of being a married couple voluntarily joined for life (or until divorce); "a long and happy marriage"; "God bless this union"
    2. two people who are married to each other; "his second marriage was happier than the first"; "a married couple without love"
    3. the act of marrying; the nuptial ceremony; "their marriage was conducted in the chapel"
    4. a close and intimate union; "the marriage of music and dance"; "a marriage of ideas"


    Robert Goodman is very, very far from understanding this issue.

  • ||

    I feel 50 IQ points dumber after reading this article. This is the kind of crap I'd expect to read in Maxim or ManTard magazine.

    It wasn't even funny.

  • Les||

    A pox on both houses, one side is engaged in hyperbole and scaremongering, and the other is lying and prevaricating.

    I agree that it's wrong to misrepresent the impact of gay marriage in schools (Oh, God, the tolerance!), but one side is definitely much, much more wrong than the other. Not everyone who opposes Prop 8 lies about it, but everyone who supports it wants to deny equal rights to homosexuals (usually for reasons of outright bigotry).

  • Les||

    I feel 50 IQ points dumber after reading this article.

    Maybe the article's not to blame. ;)

  • ||

    Penn said, "How do we best win people over? As soon as we ask that question, we're pigs. We have to leave open possibility that other side is right. Even as we call them assholes!"

    I don't get it. Why is it wrong, somehow, to try to "win people over"? And if you're not trying to persuade anyone, why call them "assholes"? That sounds just gratuitously rude.

  • Mike Laursen||

    They vehemently deny that marriage is not a part of the state school curriculum. Yet teaching "respect for marriage" is indeed a part of the curriculum.

    Oh, I see. (I think you had one "not" too many in your first sentence, but I get the idea.) I haven't heard or seen any No on 8 statements other than the yard signs that are all over our area.

  • Mike Laursen||

    I don't get it. Why is it wrong, somehow, to try to "win people over"? And if you're not trying to persuade anyone, why call them "assholes"? That sounds just gratuitously rude.

    He may be making a distinction between persuading someone from winning someone over with some gimmick or less than total honesty.

  • Mike Laursen||

    He said it's "worth exploring" I belive.

    If he thought it were merely "worth exploring", he wouldn't have even mentioned it on his campaign website. It was clearly an appeal to appeal to nativist voters.

    And it is.

    I disagree. The last thing I want the Federal government to start doing is playing around with restricting our traditions of citizenship.

    ... I think you'd probably agree that a more open legal immigration policy can only happen once the welfare state is minimized and (ideally) eliminated.

    I don't agree. Our own reason magazine has had articles debunking the idea that immigrants take more out of public coffers than they put in.

    But whatever, apparently you DO have a litmus test on immigration policy so good luck with that.

    Thanks for your good wishes.

  • ||

    I don't get it. Why is it wrong, somehow, to try to "win people over"? And if you're not trying to persuade anyone, why call them "assholes"? That sounds just gratuitously rude.

    He may be making a distinction between persuading someone from winning someone over with some gimmick or less than total honesty.

    --------

    There is a difference between persuading someone to be a libertarian vs. educating someone about libertarian principles and then allowing them to make up their own minds. The liberty to make one's own choice is the very core of the libertarian philosophy.

  • Fausticus||

    If the principles of libertarianism were not persuasive, then why be a libertarian in the first place? Is this like a club for contrarians or something?

    I mean, I can understand the sentiment of not wanting to sugar coat ideas just to 'make a sale'. But let's be realistic - politics is the only game in town, and if you don't engage, you can't effect change. Engagement means doing the work of trying to influence political culture. And that entails presenting libertarian ideas in the most truthful and (simultaneously) persuasive manner possible.

    I love Penn Jillette...but the 'take it or leave it' approach is self-defeating and counterproductive. Or, at best, it attracts only those few who share that attitude. I think we do need principled people in the party, but let's couple principles with some understanding of how power is achieved and maintained.

  • Vincent Mross||

    I haven't read all of the comments to see if this has been brought up, but regarding gay marriage I just thought I'd point out that it really shouldn't be any of government's business who marries and what sex they are. Marriage should be private contract between two people, not a three party contract that gives away a ton of your rights to the almighty State - such as treating your kids like commodities and forcing you to vaccinate them.

  • Vincent Mross||

    Oh, and excellent post John Wright... Wright on!

  • ||

    Libertarian principles are very persuasive. My intent here was to clarify the meaning behind Jillette's statement. The fact remains that a small percentage of the population is aware that the party exists. But with each election cycle this awareness grows. And with it, more money donated into the party which in turn, improves its ability put its message out there and to grow. Maybe I'm a cynic, but it seems to me that money is how you achieve and maintain power.

    I understand your point, though. I make no claim to having all the answers. Personally, I haven't yet reconciled pure libertarianism with a practicable form which would actually work. For example, without income tax and the IRS in some shape or form, how would we pay for national defense, police, etc. that are necessary in society - though I strongly believe that it can be scaled back by getting our government out of places it ought not be. Again, my cynicism shines through with my disbelief that upon being relieved of the burden of income taxes, the average joe would donate money to these costs of our society.

  • Kaiser||

    This thread has gone cold I am sure but I wanted to add this point about Prop 8. If I were in California I would be voting no as well. Not because I am against gays getting married, which of course I am not, I am against how the law was implemented. Through a supreme court majority, not by vote of the people. The people of California had already turned it down once, and the court decided they would over rule that. As Tom Campbell said: "I want to be able to tell the next generation that I was part of ending discrimination, not making it a permanent part of the law."

    (http://www.reason.com/news/show/129641.html)

  • ||

    Get over it on the ads.

    Didn't you read the article?

    It's about spreading ideas from every perspective. Mine, and Penn's, happen to be pro-Libertarian and therefore against Prop 8. We just like the idea of our message getting out and it being considered ok.

    If you want to read arguments against Prop 8, then read Penn's article. If you want to read arguments for Prop 8, then click the ad. Then make up your own mind.

    What are you, an amateur analyst for marketing efficiency? We have plenty of pros for that already, but if you want to try your hand at being a pro, go volunteer for the cause you support!

  • Les||

    I understand the mechanism behind the ads and why pro-Prop 8 ads might pop up and that's all fine and good. BUT!

    It's about spreading ideas from every perspective.

    Not every idea from every perspective needs to be, or even deserves to be, spread around.

  • ||

    I gald Penn is for "individual liberty" and we voted for the same dickwad politician and we both liked Harry Browne better, but I still think Penn is a asshole and I'm not gonna try and convince any of you to come to my side.

  • Neu Mejican||

    The man should stick to magic.

    I mean he regularly appears on Glenn Beck for god's sake. Why would anyone listen to his political rantings?

  • PennFan||

    >>Who's the chick in the pic?

    >Monica Seles

    Wrong. It's Kym Johnson.

  • Tim King||

    Thanks for posting this. I'm a huge fan of Penn & Teller's work, and was a huge fan of Harry Browne as well. I had the same sort of experience as Penn with Harry's message. He was a true, transforming personality, one of the few I've ever encountered.

    -TimK

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