Mistrust of Government Is a Beautiful Thing

Magician and Entertainer
The magician explains his libertarian beliefs and why President Obama should be “questioned and beat up.”
  • Transcript


Question: Why is it important to mistrust the government?

Penn Jillette: I believe that our country, uniquely for the time, was founded on mistrust for the government, which is such a heady and beautiful idea. The idea that we have all the rights in the world. We have complete and utter freedom and we give up very specific freedoms in order to have a government that will protect the other freedoms.

Such a profound idea and so deep, and so wonderful. And I think that it was so weird to see all the people who said that dissent was part of their job during the Bush Administration turn around and say that we were all supposed to rally behind Obama. I mean, I disagreed with Bush and Obama tremendously... and on the exact same issues. And the only issue that really matters to me is wars and killing people overseas. I'm against them... and I was against them when Bush was doing it and now that Obama is doing it more I'm against it too. And I think that it's part of the joy and the wonder and the brilliance of the ideas of the United States of America that whoever is in power is questioned and beat up.

I was asked... and I'm going on the Joy Behar Show later today and you get questions ahead of time, unlike here. They lay stuff on you ahead of time. And it was Obama said he wants to figure out whose ass to kick and that before he was busted for being not emotional enough—too cold. And now he's being busted for being too straight. How can he win? And my answer is: he's not supposed to win. He's the President. They're supposed to be millions of people disagreeing with him on everything and busting him on everything.

That's the way the country is supposed to work, and that's not something to bemoan the fact that the government can't rally everybody to work together. That's to be celebrated. The government being is hamstring and as closed off and as clumsy as possible is exactly what we want. The last thing we want is a government that can get things done. A government that can get things done all they will get done is taking away freedoms. Its been shown over and over again. We want a clunky, sloppy, slow-moving, small, insignificant, weak government there all the time. And that's a government we can love and protect.

What is the biggest misconception people have about libertarians?

Penn Jillette:  Well it's the same misconception that everybody seems to have about everyone else and it's the same misconception libertarians have about liberals or conservatives have and that is we sometimes tend to forget that everybody is trying for the best. Everyone's goals are the same with very small differences. I mean, the goal of a socialist and the goal of a libertarian are exactly the same. The goals are happiness and security and freedom and you balance those.

But I think the biggest misconception that I find about libertarians is that there's a lack of compassion and I think that there is as much compassion on libertarians as there is among liberals. It's not what the problems are, it's how to solve them. Everybody wants clean, safe, energy. Some people think nuclear is the way to go. Some people think coal is the way to go. Some people think wind is the way to go. And there's always balances on that. Libertarians tend to put freedom as a goal in itself and also a way to attain other goals. Liberals tend to put security as a goal in itself and a way to obtain other goals.

I think the biggest misconception is that libertarians... I guess the cliche would be don't care about the crack babies. I just think you can deal with people in trouble using compassion. One of the things that bothers me about statism is that they take away my compassion. When you take money from me by force, run it through the government to help other people... I think there's less compassion than me being able to do something. What I say about libertarians verses liberals is I will gladly help you build a library; I will not use a gun to get someone else to join us in helping to build that library.

I want credit. I want credit for helping. I want to feel like I'm helping and giving money to the government does not seem like the best way to help and forcing other people to give money the government seems immoral to me. I think that if I want to cure cancer I should work on curing cancer. You can't force other people to give money to cure cancer then you're not really helping or you're helping in a way that I don't think is right. So the question on health care was not if you saw someone laying in the street who needed help would you run over and bandage them. The question is really if you saw someone suffering in the street would you run, get a policeman, have that policeman find a doctor, have that doctor forced by everybody around to take a vote and then come in and help.

But I think that it's forgotten that what everybody is trying to do is help the people that need it. Everybody is trying that and I will say that about every political group and I think that I would love to see people using the word "wrong" more and using the word "evil" less. Obama is a really good guy, a really smart guy, and every moment, every second of every day is spent trying to do what's best. I disagree with him. But there's no sense that he's evil and this is something I'll say that a lot of people will freak out at. I think the same was true for George W. Bush. I think every second he was trying as hard as he could to do what was best. I disagree with him very, very, very intently—but that's back to the fundamentalist atheist thing.

To be able to say "you're wrong, and here are the reasons," is respect. To say "you're evil" is antihuman because the people that I've met in my life who were truly bad and are truly evil is such a small number. I mean, if you take the six billion people on the planet and round off the numbers about six billion are good.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman