Monday, September 12, 2011

A response to Penn Jillette

I've grown to be an admirer of Penn Jillette in recent years. I really like the title of his new book (God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales) as it sounds like a conclusion I came to in recent times. His video blog is frequently great fun, too. However, we don't agree in the realm of politics, as I'm a socialist and he's a libertarian. His recent CNN guest column draws some parallels between his atheism and his libertarianism with arguments that have shown me just where he, and perhaps other libertarians, are making their mistakes.

"People try to argue that government isn't really force. You believe
that? Try not paying your taxes. ... Guns will be drawn. Government is
force -- literally, not figuratively."

This is an argument I've seen before and it's apparently based on the idea that NOBODY wants to take part in government. Many of us do want to take part in government, however, so it's not a matter of force when we're willingly giving up our money. I guess the libertarians could respond with something like "you can't rape the willing" but I think they underestimate the numbers of people who want social services from their government and are willing to pay taxes to provide them. If one is willing to pay for something, the force argument falls apart unless you're willing to say that all trades of money for services are force.

"I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone."

That is not the guiding principle of the social contract. In fact, it's a disgusting parody of the "majority rule" principle of any democracy. And today we usually conceive it as "majority rule with minority rights".

Here's an example to show how the "majority thinks it knows best" idea is BS: you're at a party with 10 friends and 9 of them want to order pepperoni pizzas while you want veggie pizza. Nobody there would think that the majority think pepperoni is best for the group, but they probably would agree that most preferences would be satisfied by that order. What would probably happen at the party (and ideally in a democratically governed society) is they would order a couple pepperonis and 1 veggie pizza, as everybody wants everybody else to be happy in a civil and friendly situation. If you don't want everybody to be happy, you're the one keeping the situation (or society) from being civil.

"The fact that the majority thinks they have a way to get something
good does not give them the right to use force on the minority that
don't want to pay for it."

This is a tricky area; the idea that we shouldn't be forced to pay for things we don't want seems very fair on the surface, but anybody who willingly takes part in government understands that the majority rule principle means they can't always get everything they want. Going back to the pizza party example, I may think I can eat more than 1 veggie pizza but I have to accept that the others really want pepperoni and they shouldn't pay for my gluttony. But we have a right to petition for what we want and open communication means we can argue for what we want, which can potentially change majority opinion.

Framing it in the sense of "we don't want to pay for these government actions" makes one wonder what this person thinks the ideal situation would be. Should our tax returns have a page where we list off things we will and won't be willing to let our taxes go to? Should every government expenditure be a bond with a referendum? Or maybe could we keep our current system and try to elect people we think will spend the money the way we best want.

"If you have to use a gun, I don't believe you really know jack.
Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks. It's just
ganging up against the weird kid, and I'm always the weird kid."

I wonder if Penn really thinks "ganging up against the weird kid" would decrease if we changed to his ideal laissez-faire system. Is that how minorities have won their rights in our history, by letting the marketplace decide?



Anonymous YLlama said...

I suppose what'd I'd prefer to see is more things dealt with through direct democracy, about as many things dealt with through bureaucracy, and nothing dealt with through representative democracy, replacing the day-to-day top level governing (as well as administrative appointments, and emergency governance, like war declaration) with something more like jury service.

Majority rules regarding revenue collection levels makes sense to me. But perhaps we can take a portion of the taxes paid and allow the individual to direct (in a broad sense) its application. As in, I write on my tax return that I want (the discretionary, directable portion) my taxes to go in equal measures towards disaster response, adult education, and welfare, by, say, checking boxes, then that's where the funds go. There'd be some growing pains, of course, as certain programs get their funding slashed, and others get glutted (because people don't have a clear picture about what things cost). But it'd at least mute (somewhat) the influence of the government contractor industry on dictating what expenditures get made.

But that's a tangent. To really get a consent-of-the-governed situation, you really need to be prepared to cut off the free riders. Which most people aren't prepared to do. Including most libertarians. Nearly everyone is simply unprepared to tell the guy who's driving his in-labor pregnant wife (with complications) he can't drive on the highway to the hospital until he pays his past due road bill. All deference to majorities (or any trumping decisionmaker) is really a way of getting around the free rider problem without violating perceived moral law.

What's funny about libertarians is that they're definitionally not anarchists. And so each of them fundamentally believes there are *some* things that *are* appropriate endeavors for government. And government is, without exception, an objection trumping enterprise. If *everyone* agreed, it'd be more like a giant homeowner's association; and those that don't agree can opt out an form their own. The whole idea of government is that, at least when it comes to certain things (e.g. owning nuclear weapons, imprisoning folks as punishment for crimes, contract enforcement), government does prevail legitimately over the wishes of some. The only dispute between libertarians and others is where the line is. I suppose in theory, all government roles could be fulfilled without any money, or at least without undonated money. But I'm skeptical that any real government can fulfill even a fraction of the roles (nearly) everyone wants fulfilled without engaging in at least some form of cash extraction.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Felix Pardalis said...

I'd like more direct democracy, too, but people seem to think that it's enough trouble to vote every four years. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

5:34 AM  

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