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A Discussion With Penn Jillette

Why I’m not a Libertarian


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller. And I’m a particularly big fan of Penn (the one who talks. A lot) Jillette. He has spoken frequently and written at length about his atheistic worldview and about his version of libertarianism; one I often come near to embracing, but ultimately cannot.


Penn (if I may be bold enough to presume a first handle basis: if you read this, Mr. Jillette, please call me Pagun), is very persuasive and admirable in his explication of his brand of libertarianism. He explains, for example, his adoption of that position by describing how he and his parents once looked at a government subsidised art exhibit and had two distinct reactions to what was on display. Penn liked it very much but his parents saw it as blasphemous; he then realised how unfair it was that his parents had to contribute to the support of something with which they totally disagreed. That is a very reasonable reaction to governmental expenditures with which a taxpayer may disagree; who wouldn’t agree that something is amiss when one has to pay for something that directly contravenes one’s deeply held beliefs?

Who would disagree? Well, me, for one.

You see, libertarians of every stripe hold the view that we are better off with minimal government intrusion into our lives. And as a corollary to that, we would be better off if we reduced current levels of government participation, and especially oversight in our day-to-day lives. But as positive as this all sounds, I must respectfully disagree with Penn and other libertarians who come at it (as he puts it) through a hippie point of view.

The problem with eliminating government sponsorship of the arts, for example, is that without such sponsorship, the arts would sputter and ultimately fizzle out in the current zeitgeist. Removing government sponsorship and requiring that the arts be entirely self-financed would create a cultural milieu in which the most popular would be all that is available for even the most counterculture and avant-garde art aficionados. Allowing the radical democratisation of the arts would simply eliminate what is now cutting edge and what just might be a breakthrough in the way that Van Gogh’s work was. Much of art, including literature, was wildly unpopular at its time and didn’t sell worth a damn until long after the death of the artist. What would survive, of course, would be, almost by definition, the mediocre.

There would be no highbrow art at all. There would be nothing but the homogenised mainstream literature and if we are to judge by viewership figures, by far the most successful of the visual arts would be pornography. Now pornography is great, but I would love to see the government support arts that aren’t quite so popular and mainstream.

In times past there were patrons of the arts. There were the Medicis and the Borgias and thblack-velvet-painting-of-matador-bull-fighter-at-ki-huic-market-cancun-BF0Y19e Popes and Royal families of Europe, Tsars of Russia, and private wealth holders like the Rothschild family to ensure that their favourite artists were paid a living wage, freeing them up to create works that would only be recognised in the fullness of time. Without the aforementioned patrons, the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and the rest of the Ninja Turtles would never have seen the light of day. Even Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t have created his miraculous body of work without the patronage of his brother and friends; he didn’t sell a single piece in his lifetime. But those days are gone; there are virtually no patrons left.

The only system left to patronise the arts is society’s contribution even to art that individual taxpayers don’t understand, aren’t fond of, or even actively despise. To cut off funding for those arts is condemn a country to artistic mediocrity in the name of some misunderstood notion of democracy.

While I too abhor government overreach, I also take the view that the majority isn’t always right and I subscribe to the views of the United States’ founding fathers in their fear of a “Tyranny of the Majority”. It is, in my view, crucial that there is room for the creation of art that might go against the grain, art whose merit my not be appreciated for another generation or more. I view with horror the possibility of a cultural milieu in which art that is immensely popular is our only option. I hope I’m not alone in wishing not to usher in a world in which pornography, toreadors on black velvet, and giant-eyed waifs clutching kittens are our only options. And if there is no public patronage for the arts, that’s what we’ll get.


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