Friday, May 8, 2015

Flashback Friday: Does charity begin with the government?

Penn Jillette – the talking half of the comedy/magic team Penn & Teller – is an endlessly interesting man. That doesn’t mean that I always, or even usually, agree with him. I seldom agree with anyone that often, including me. It does, however, mean that within the contents of any given comments of his, there are bound to be words of interest, ideas that bear exploration, repetition, even agreement. And so when he appeared with Piers Morgan on CNN (catch Piers soon, by the way, before the British phone hacking scandal claims him), there was stuff that was good and stuff that wasn’t so good.

His atheism, for example, has never appealed to me. (I recall once reading about how he and his partner Teller were so adamant on this point that they even removed the Gideon Bibles from the hotel rooms in which they stayed.) I think he’s dead wrong about faith – requiring certainty about anything, including religion, is a formula for paralysis, in my opinion – but at least I understand where he’s coming from more than I did before. And just because I disagree – strongly – with it doesn’t mean that I can’t at least comprehend it. (I think he’s an outstanding candidate for prayer, by the way. The appearance of a divine intervention in his life might be difficult for him to explain away, which in turn might force him to acknowledge it as something worthy of further consideration.)

And just because I disagree with him on some things doesn’t mean that I can’t agree with him on others. He says that his thoughts on politics flow from the same insistence on certainty as do his thoughts on religion; but his demand for certainty, which fails him in the sacred, serves him much better with regard to the secular. Take, for example, his thoughts on government programs:

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.
Oddly enough, he might find himself in agreement with the great Catholic humanitarian Dorothy Day, who felt that government welfare programs tended to abrogate the individual’s moral responsibility to provide charity themselves. When you can have the government do your charitable work for you, why bother to get your own hands dirty?

Needless to say, there are many liberals, dedicated to taking your tax money from you to do good, who also contribute their own personal time, talent and money. I’m not saying that all they do is steal from the rich and give to the poor from the comfort of their own homes. But Penn’s comment that “There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint” is a profound one. Make no mistake, he says – “When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force -- literally, not figuratively.” Which leads to this conclusion:

I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone. 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. 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.
There’s a great deal of truth in that statement. It’s classic libertarianism, and while that’s another –ism that I don’t completely agree with, there’s no doubt that it’s a vital and necessary part of contemporary conservative thought.

And proof, once again, that food for thought can come from surprising places.

(By the way, in the midst of this heavy discussion don’t overlook the hilarious story he tells about a Nobel-winning physicist, a community college teacher, and a talk show host. And no, they don’t walk into a bar together.)

Originally published August 18, 2011

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