I endorse skepticism.

I’m a huge fan of Penn Jillette. He’s consistently libertarian, as evidenced by his Showtime! series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. Also, his Vegas show with Teller is entertaining. So I read with interest this recent interview he did with reason about the presidential election.

reason: You were critical of the old newsletters that were revealed during the primaries, but on balance was Ron Paul good for libertarians?

Jillette: The basic underlying premise of that question I disagree with. I believe in individual rights so much that I don’t like any sort of “what’s good for the cause”-type question. A little while ago I was at skeptics, atheists conference and a question like that came up. How do we best win people over? As soon as we ask that question, we’re pigs. We have to leave open possibility that other side is right. Even as we call them assholes!

A lot of people listened to Ron Paul and a lot rang true to them. A lot of what he said, I agreed with. But my job professionally, my job as human, my job as an American citizen is not to do what I can to further the libertarian cause. If Obama came out and said “when I’m elected I’d make government as small as I can” I’d really get behind him. I’m not trying to get Libertarians elected. I’m even uncomfortable telling people who to vote for.

I heard Jillette say good things about Ron Paul on the Howard Stern Show too long after Paul’s past racist associations became clear, which I felt was unfortunate. But, yeah, it’s about the ideas. It always will be. I’m interested in liberty first, process second. That comes through here, and it’s the takeaway point.

For example, does this arugment make sense under any skepticism?

And here we see a fundamental difference between the progressive worldview and the conservative worldview. Progressives believe in a robust safety net for everyone. It’s very possible, as we’re seeing, that you’ll experience financial hard times for reasons that have nothing to do with you. A lot of the people doing unskilled service work in the Lehman Brothers office may lose their jobs as a result of this unwinding even though they didn’t do anything wrong. And that sort of thing happens all the time — people get laid off because adverse things happen to the companies they work for. Or people are struck by other kinds of misfortune — they get hit by buses, hurricanes destroy their houses, all kinds of stuff. Misfortune strikes ordinary people, and not just billionaires. And in the case of ordinary people, just as in the case of billionaires, you can offer improve social welfare by helping people out when they wind up in trouble.

But conservatives don’t believe in that kind of safety net for regular people — just for the billionaires. Guaranteed health care? Forget it. Guaranteed retirement income? No way. Just let the market work, and when it stops working the executives will be okay and the rest of us will, oh, something or other.

This is a bit out of date (mid-September), but the flaw is timeless. First, an overwhelming number of Democrats voted for the bailout plan. Do they not count as progressives? Does the claimed need to Do Something outweigh the obvious welfare for the billionaires?

But note how this kind of statement is a nasty simplification that could be rebutted if the accuser – in this case, Matt Yglesias – replaced his assumption with a question directed at the target of his attacks. I’m including myself in his definition of conservative, even though I identify as a libertarian. The comparison is close enough because what he’s attacking is the idea that government shouldn’t be providing X service (i.e. safety net). That’s not what he’s saying, of course. Instead, it’s a veiled “you hate poor/unlucky people because you don’t support my solution”. Any worldview condensed to such inanity is a sad commentary on the believer.

I support a reasonable safety net for the truly incompetent. I’m even willing to consider temporary safety nets for such cases as layoffs, hurricanes¹, or whatever. However, those are questions of how to effectively resolve the problems with minimal interference (i.e. taxation, regulations). I don’t think widespread government-provided safety nets are the universal solution. We can agree that not having mass numbers of people living in the streets is worth achieving. It does not flow from there to the implication that those who disagree on how to achieve the goal are selfish degenerates who want babies to die in the streets.

Stretched back to the context of Penn Jillette’s statement above, I can vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, but I’m not saying I think the Libertarian Party is the only, or best, way to achieve liberty. Like he said, if Obama stands up tomorrow and proposes a policy that enhances liberty, I will support it. It’s the principle, not the policy. All of politics is the same idea.

¹ It’s not too much to expect, in return, for the government to stop incentivizing stupid, risky behavior. This applies more to building homes in flood plains, I suppose, but it’s applicability to hurricanes is almost the same. Also, financial risks. Don’t encourage bad luck and then expect me to pay those who embraced it.