Penn Jillette: Momentarily Wrong on Bernie, But Way More Wrong on Rand

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Wed, Oct 14 - 11:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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Penn Jillette is one of my heroes but I have almost no interest in stage magic. My fandom for him comes from his outspoken Libertarian views. And more than anything, for his ability to present those views in a way that reaches people who would sometimes not be reached otherwise. His TV show “Bullshit” was a masterpiece of communicating Libertarianism in a way that was entertaining and approachable.

Penn Jillette
Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

So I was pretty surprised when the twitterverse suddenly came alive with angry Libertarians being pissed off at Penn Jillette. Turns out Penn told CNN that Bernie Sanders was the “one person in this race who’s actually genuine and not crazy”. He also said he was “disappointed” in Rand Paul for not being Libertarian enough.

This all sounded very unlike Penn. Had his recent massive weight loss affected his mind?

As it turns out, I mostly worried for nothing. Penn Jillette has NOT endorsed Bernie Sanders, and he later admitted to Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch that his praise was a bit over the top.

Now, Welch was very right that Bernie is in NO way a Libertarian, and that any Libertarians who think he’s on their side are fooling themselves. But Penn had a certain point too. Most of the people who just retweeted the headline and didn’t look at the actual interview missed the very start, where Penn isn’t talking about Bernie, he’s talking about Hillary Clinton.

He says, and I quote, “Hillary Clinton is just Nixon. I mean she’s precisely Nixon.” And he’s damn well right about that.

Hillary is a pathological liar; she’ll say anything she thinks will get her to the White House. And she has no real reason for getting to the White House other than an absolute conviction that she “deserves” to be president; that it’s “her turn.” She has no convictions, no real beliefs. In the debate on Tuesday night, she claimed to be against a half-dozen things she’d voted in favor of as a senator. She was against gay marriage until a couple of years ago, when polls suggested to her that most Democrats were for it, and then she suddenly became a retroactive lifelong supporter of it. She stands for nothing but herself.

She’s not precisely Nixon; she’s worse than Nixon. At least Nixon really believed in fighting the communists.

And, in comparison to that, Sanders is definitely genuine. I pointed it out myself in an earlier article where I said that Sanders actually believes in what he’s saying. He’s not a socialist of convenience, he’s just a socialist. He’s wrong on almost everything, but he is actually honest and has convictions — which makes him way better than Hillary. Not that it’s hard to be better than Hillary (though Jeb Bush is certainly trying).

Now one of the things I really admire about Penn Jillette is that willingness to be straight about what he thinks, and his response to Welch’s article proves he’s also willing to admit when he didn’t get something right. What really surprised me about his CNN interview wasn’t what he said about Bernie, though. It was what he said about Rand Paul.

You see, Penn said something a few years ago that changed how I thought about Libertarianism. I wish I could share it with you verbatim but I don’t even remember where he said it (maybe some smart reader will be able to link to it). He was responding to the unbelievably stupid “what about the roads” argument a lot of people opposing Libertarianism always try to bring up. This is the argument that starts by pretending that all Libertarians want absolutely no government at all, and then talk about how government is needed to build roads and that in a Libertarian world we’d all just be sitting around in the mud with nowhere to go. Never mind that there are many degrees of Libertarian thought: some of us (probably most of us) think that government can legitimately engage in infrastructure building within some limited guidelines. Others think that local government could be in charge of local infrastructure. Yet others believe groupings of business interests could build roads. Absolutely no Libertarians I know of think there shouldn’t be roads.

And most Libertarians answer this question with one of those arguments, even though the question itself is a trap. Jillette answered it a different way: he said the roads aren’t what we should worry about right now. There are tons of other things to fix that Libertarians can find common ground on with each other and with non-Libertarians. Libertarians shouldn’t be going around talking about abolishing all public works, they should be talking about free speech, legalizing drugs, opposing discrimination, cutting big corporate subsidies, cutting taxes, reducing government waste, opposing pointless wars and runaway military spending, and any other points that a lot of people on the right and the left could get behind.

That’s the right answer. Basically, a lot of Libertarians are so all-or-nothing that they lose the plot and alienate people. People who could be allies with them in getting important things done. Let’s get people in government who agree with us on a lot of things, even if they don’t agree with us on everything. And let’s worry about convincing people about the other stuff later. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

All of which is why I think that the real thing Libertarians should be calling out Penn on is not talking about Bernie Sanders being sincere, and being a slightly better human being than Hillary. What we should really be calling him out on is Rand Paul.

I don’t agree with everything Paul stands for. He’s not as much of a “small government guy” as Penn might like, or indeed as I or many other Libertarians might like. And yes, right now he’s been tempering his Libertarian message to try to survive the early stage of an election dominated by bluff imbeciles like Donald Trump (I called Rand out on that too. But if you want a guy who’s mostly “genuine and not crazy,” Rand’s your man. He is, from a Libertarian point of view, the living embodiment of “let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Libertarians have a real chance of making a mark on the biggest political stage around, and that’s what we should be focusing on instead of screwing around with third-party nonsense that never gets us anywhere. Paul may not be the end point of an ideal situation, but he is an important step toward getting there; because if we ever have any hope of “getting there,” Libertarian ideals must make slow and steady inroads to becoming the dominant influence of the Republican party. The more influence we gain in this presidential election, the further we’ll be able to get after that. This is the only way to get the values we hold into a place where they can actually be applied. Especially now that the Left is moving further and further away from those values it once shared with us on things like free speech and personal liberty.

Penn, you had the remarkable guts to admit you were wrong on Sanders. Will you consider revising your opinion on Rand?

Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at

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  • Darkness Dragon

    Not only is Jillette right about Rand but it’s blatantly false to assume Sanders is anything remotely ‘genuine’. In the former, Rand Paul even put himself out as a party-line voter when asked if he’ll support any GOP candidate (and allowed Trump to be viewed as the “rational outsider”) and went further when ISIS was brought up, instead of bringing up ISIS being a creation of the U.S. government by some degree or another he played right into the narrative they’ve weaved. Meanwhile, Sanders recently switched his position on guns while being stingy about his own money like every other socialist ever.

    It’s one thing to find allies in others, it’s another thing entirely to pretend someone is something they’re not.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      There’s no actually viable candidate who is closer to Libertarian values than Rand Paul. Supporting the eventual candidate is the logical thing to do. Libertarians have to stop getting so aroused at the thought of being the perennial outsiders. If we want to actually CHANGE things, we need to get inside the Republican party and become a force that cannot be ignored.

      Those Libertarians who keep voting for the ridiculous Libertarian party are just engaging in virtue-signalling. They almost seem desperate to keep being in the peripheral minority, rather than influencing society effectively.

    • Darkness Dragon

      Voting has proven itself ineffective. For hundreds of years now, people have been voting for new leaders under the delusional self-serving belief that “but this time it will be different!” and that “he’s not good, but he is the lesser of evils”. Every single time, nothing gets better. Not to mention that voting is inherently immoral for the logical libertarian since all it does is promote the idea people can just vote others’ rights away.

      Rand Paul is not a libertarian and it has nothing to do with the ever-fascist supporting LP either. Rand Paul has proven himself to be nothing like his father, and every bit the GOP version of Obama.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      In a constitutional system, there is no inherent assumption that “people can just vote others’ rights away”. And there’s no alternative I know of to democracy that is MORE effective at insuring personal liberty and avoiding the potential of individuals or small groups taking away the liberties of others. If you actually want to argue for such an alternative, go ahead.

    • Darkness Dragon

      A constitutional system is precisely the key symbol of how people vote others’ rights away (maybe you should take a look at the U.S. Constitution for example since it gives government the right to steal my money despite that no one has the right to steal my money and I never consented to the government being allowed to have it) and government is incapable of doing anything at all to protect anyone’s natural rights (it is everything the means of might makes right).

      The only thing logically-consistent with libertarianism is Autarchism (RE: Anarchism) since expecting a socialist state to protect the private market is like letting a bunch of foxes guard the hen house.

      “Capitalism is the fullest expression of anarchism, and anarchism is the fullest expression of capitalism. Not only are they compatible, but you can’t really have one without the other. True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism.” – Murray Rothbard

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      And a lot like “true socialism” it’s presently a pipe-dream that would be impossible to implement. It MIGHT be possible to implement in a few decades or so, if advances in technology get us to a post-scarcity state. And if and when that happens, I’ll be right there at your side. But right now, we have to focus on what’s doable right now.

    • Darkness Dragon

      It’s not some pipe dream. Every day things get done in our lives in total anarchy, and as we speak there is a thing such as the Free State Project, Agorism and Voluntarism all.

      What’s a pipedream is expecting government in any form to work for the individual.

    • Totes Curmudgeonly

      No matter where you fall on the libertarian spectrum, you should at least engage the political process defensively. While you wait for Anarchy Jesus to come down from the clouds put Rand Paul in the White House.

    • Darkness Dragon

      I can engage the political process without such an ineffective, ultraviolent machine as voting. It’s called education. Maybe you should look it up instead of drooling at Rand Paul’s authoritarian boots.

  • Joseph

    You lost me in only one tiny part: “opposing discrimination”. Every other item you list in that section is a function of government. “Opposing discrimination” is something that individuals may rightly do, but if the government gets involved, it must inevitably devolve quite literally into thought control. Government may have a legitimate interest in curbing some activities, but it has no business trying to sort out what someone’s motives are for engaging in those activities.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      No, there is a legitimate role in opposing discrimination for government. Equality of opportunity is a libertarian value, because personal liberty depends on it. So for example, what I meant with opposing discrimination is things like making sure that government offices can’t engage in selective variance of services based on gender, race, sexuality, etc. (of course, there’s a lot of current things government ‘serves’ that it has no business doing so, but that’s another matter), making sure that state colleges can’t apply discriminatory racial or gender quotas, and so on.


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    • Joseph

      Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, then. The way I read it was preventing discrimination in general, which I don’t think is something that government should be in the job of doing. If you’re just talking about government itself not discriminating based on various criteria, I will probably agree, depending on the specific criteria involved.

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