How I Became A Libertarian

Penn Jillette

I got out of high school—notice I don’t say “graduated”—on a plea bargain. I had reasonable SATs, and I went to my principal in the beginning of my senior year and said that I wanted to pass, because it was important to my family that I actually finish high school. But I wasn’t going to come to school any more, because I was sick of that, and I said that if he did not graduate me at the end of my senior year, I would give an impassioned speech to the school board that they were not dealing well with their gifted students. He said to me, “Are you threatening me?” and I said “Yes.” And we made a deal.

So before I finished high school, I was out on the road in the USA. I learned to eat fire, and I learned to juggle, and I went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth Clown College.

And I say “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth Clown College” all the way through, because if you worked for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth and you ever said “circus,” or “show,” or “the Ringling Show” without saying “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth,” you were fined. And we weren’t paid that much.

I met Teller when I was 18 and we started putting together our magic show. I guess we were kind of fast-tracked to be Hollywood liberals—I’m in show business, I have this kind of impotent ponytail back here—I probably should be a liberal. I probably should be a Bernie Sanders supporter and I should be “Feeling the Bern”—but I’m not.

The way the media tend to present libertarians is that we’re conservatives, or we’re people with money who want to smoke dope. And it’s really not true at all for me. I do not come to libertarianism because I’m a really successful businessperson, or a CEO, or because I have to fight regulations. I really come to it from a purely hippie point of view. I have always been a peacenik, and in the 80s I met a man named Tim Jenison. I was then just kind of your standard liberal, and Tim was libertarian.

I started giving all the arguments for why the government had to be more powerful, and Tim said a really simple sentence to me. He said, “Do you think it’s OK to punish people who’ve done nothing wrong?” And I said “No”—even though I felt somewhere in my heart that it was a trick question. And then he said, “Why is it OK to reward people who’ve done nothing right?” He said, “Can’t you see that you can’t reward without punishing? They’re the same thing.” And that shut me up for a little while.

Then Tim started saying, “You know, you’re so against force. You’ve never hit anybody in your life. You’ve been beat up. You’ve been in carnival situations that have gone badly and people have hit you and you’ve not hit them back because you didn’t think it was life threatening. You are insanely peacenik in terms of the way you see war, what the country should do. Why do you think it’s so OK for the government to use force to get things done that you think are good ideas?”

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