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!