Monday, October 24, 2011

Penn Jillette on libertarianism

Am I spreading myself too thin here?  Between the Atheist Experience blog (now new and improved on!), Castles of Air, and other media formats, it seems like this blog is one of the main casualties that doesn't get enough love.  Really short remarks go on Twitter, less short discussions on Facebook, programming stuff goes on CoA, and a lot of comments I just save for the show.  But wait, there is one thing I can always put here: arguments with economic conservatives!  And here we go again.

I have a firm policy of refusing to humor people whose method of arguing is sending me links to YouTube.  But I made a special exception in this case because it's Penn Jillette, and Penn -- while very often wrong -- is always so very, very cool.

So, okay, I watched this video and was, as always, entertained by Penn's speaking style.  And IMHO he's still wrong.

Penn obviously made some reasonable points that are easy to agree with.  "Let's stop the government from doing really stupid stuff."  Well, duh, yeah!  I'm against things that are stupid!  Way to go out on a limb, Penn!  Solidarity, man!

In all seriousness, Penn and I agree on a lot of things, because many of his beliefs are already in the Venn diagram that includes liberals.  Let's stop killing people we don't know for reasons we don't understand: check.  Let's stop bailing out rich people: check.  No more tobacco subsidies: check.  Stop wasting time locking up people with marijuana, okay.

But then he gets to the part where a libertarian and a liberal would disagree... and he just chickens out.  He says "You can make that argument that we still need education, and we still need infrastructure, and you'll probably win with me."  Woot!  I beat Penn Jillette without saying a word!

Actually, let me make this response explicit.  Hey, Penn.  We still need education, and we still need infrastructure.  That is stuff that government does well and libertarian candidates don't propose a good and practical alternative to it.  In fact, let's go back to the beginning of the video, and see why Penn Jillette thinks we don't actually need public education anymore.  "I believe the tools are in place for people to learn on their own... I think that education is going to come from the web."

And that is, as Penn himself might say, "Bullshit!"  Yes, most people have access to the web now.  NO, that doesn't mean that it's an acceptable substitute for having actual teachers who spend individual time with students and react to their needs.  You'll notice that despite all his praise of the internet, Penn states that he sends his own kids to "fancy ass private schools," and good for them!  They're lucky to have a dad whose net worth is $175 million.  But hey, if you're a poor kid then you can damn well flail around on web sites and educate yourself.

If you want to make me waste time on this (and I hope you won't, because it's too bloody obvious) I'll slap together some statistics -- yet again -- that show that countries which have solid public education systems have a more educated populace; and people who have a high school diploma -- yes, even  from one of those dreaded public high schools, like me -- are better off and more successful (statistically, as a group) than people whose only education comes from "the internet."

See, the argument is not that some elitist government has to bring "enlightenment" to people.  It's that it is a social good and in all our best interests for our citizens to be educated.  And in the event that we have kids whose parents can't send them to fancy-ass private schools, we provide publicly funded alternatives to them rather than just throwing them under the bus and saying "Here, Timmy, play with this smart phone.  See you in twelve years!"

And I'd gladly argue with Penn about bridges and infrastructure, too.  But as I already said, I can't, because in this particular video Penn conceded that without a fight.


  1. Kazim, great article. I totally agree. Libertarians are an odd breed, they are.

  2. As someone who might almost kind of, like, maybe, possibly, somehow be something akin to a libertarian, more or less, maybe I can add yome diversity:

    "We still need education, and we still need infrastructure. That is stuff that government does well"

    It does? Where?
    The governments I know manage barely adequate education and more or less acceptable infrastructure with very questionable efficiency.
    And while I think it's quite possible that this could still be the best way to do it in practice,
    I wouldn't say that it's completely unreasonable to think that private enterprise could provide those just as well or possibly better if one goes the right way about it.
    It hasn't been tried, as far as I know.
    I mean, you have to admit that "throwing them under the bus and saying "Here, Timmy, play with this smart phone. See you in twelve years!"" is kind of a straw man.

  3. Let me google that for you.

    Australia, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Cuba, Canada, Norway, South Korea, Ireland, and the Netherlands. That's where.

  4. Well you're cranky today. But I guess I deserved that.
    Still, I don't think that index makes for a completely convincing argument, or even any kind of complete argument. Yes, there are governments that offer better education than others. I never doubted that, and I will certainly admit that my comment's beginning might have been unneccessarily stroppy. (Does anyone really use that word? I just found it in a dictionary, but I never heard or read it.)
    So anyway, thanks for googling, and have a nice day.

  5. It's seems bizarre that the video promises to "reconcile atheismm with libertarianism" and doesn't even defend either.
    This whole video seems like he's saying: "Ok, I believe REALLY strange things I can't actually defend, so just lest's don't talk about them and focus on the sensible things I believe and we all can agree upon". Fine with me. But there's two problems.
    First, Penn does put his strictly libertarian ideas on the public arena so he doesn't get to backtrack from them. Either he stops talking about libertarianism or and he can ask not to be questioned about it, or he keeps defending his ideology and accepts the criticism.
    Second, he is not only a libertarian by ideology, but also by membership. And when you are part of an organization involved on climate change disinformation and denial in service of ideology, you don't have the right not to get criticised.

    He want's his cake and eat it too. I've seen him use similar tactics. On one video he says that he is a libertarian for the same reason that he is an atheist, because he doesn't know. He doesn't know how to run a good government, how to end poverty, how to improve education and healthcare.
    To that I say, fair enough. But if that's your argument, then you don't get to tell other people that government should be small, regulations are bad and taxes shouldn't exist. Either you claim no knowledge or you have an opinion. You cannot have if both ways.

  6. Surely the issue with privatized education is about access? I'm no expert, but wouldn't getting rid of or scaling back government-run schools mean that privately-owned schools would have to compete with one another for business, thus raising the standard of education offered while necessarily raising tuition fees beyond the reach of lower-income families? Isn't that basically dooming kids from poorer households to poor education and consequently to low-paying jobs, and their kids to the same fate after them? Doesn't that just perpetuate inequality of opportunity?

    I live in New Zealand and Libertarian arguments about cutting back government involvement in education are practically unheard of here - yes, our right wing parties talk about cutting back funding but nobody is seriously suggesting putting the education of our kids into the hands of private enterprise - on the whole, I thnk, we're quite happy with the way things are.

  7. Yes.

    According to "Free Market is King" ideology, if you remove all government funding for education then the resulting vacuum will result in a huge market for a private education corporation to offer cheap services to the masses. No real evidence is offered that (a) this will happen everywhere, rather than the most unprofitable areas simply being left in the cold, or that (b) the "education by lowest bidder" thus provided won't simply be of the "statistics show that happy children drink Coca-Cola™ every day!" variety.

    Or, in some cases, they acknowledge that large numbers of children simply won't have the opportunity to be educated, but they don't care.

  8. A libertarian once admitted that education was not really important since there's a lot of people without higher education who own profitable companies.

    Yes.... frightening.

  9. There are a number of issues here, public vs private education vs no education vs self education. Too huge of a topi. I focus on Penn's initial comment about teaching evolution.

    I think Penn is just mistaken when he calls out the state for imposing its version of truth. The issue is simple, if the state is to teach "science" that whic is labelled "science" must be the mainstream or consensus view among scientists. This is not something the state gets an opinion on, and it's not a truth issue. Teaching children theology or a select minority theory and calling it science is borderline fraudulent and te state does have a legitimate interest in stopping it.

    On the larger issue, I think we all have an interest in our children's education reflecting a set of fundamental skills and knowledge that is consistent with the kind of society we want to have. self-taught on the net kids? I would think we still need some curriculum and standards to certify that a basic level of knowledge and skill has been obtained. I personally feel that for education and health care (I'm Canadian) - we're all in it together. We all deserve the same, if it's not good enough fix it.

  10. The argument is: "I don't know what is best for other people, therefore I shouldn't impose my decision on others, therefore no government."

    It reminds of the Theist argument against science. "Science can't explain x, therefore science isn't perfect, therefore believe the bible." It seems to be the same fallacy.

    To counter this, I like the chess analogy I've heard Matt use on the show. Just because there are many possible moves and we don't necessarily know which move is the best one, doesn't mean that we (or the government) should not make a move. We can still make an assessment of which move will provide a good result, even if we are not certain of the best possible move.

    Living in Australia and being the product of a public education, I can identify many areas in which it could have been improved. But it was certainly a fair system and provided me with a solid education.