LAS VEGAS — “My whole libertarian approach comes out of being just a nutty fucking peacenik,” magician Penn Jillette confides backstage at his show, a few hours before he is set to perform.
“A lot of people make this argument that the free market will do everything right,” he explains.
“I have no evidence for that. I don’t believe that. I have no evidence that libertarianism leads to a better life. I just think it is morally right. My position is I can’t find a way that anything should be done by force that I wouldn’t do by force myself.”
The six-foot-six Jillette is the vocal and imposing half of the illusionist act Penn & Teller. When The Daily Caller met up with him last week in the “monkey room” behind the scenes of his Las Vegas show at the Rio Hotel & Casino, which Penn & Teller have called home for over a decade, he had just had his eyes dilated so he couldn’t exactly see who he was talking to.
But it is Jillette’s voice that creates waves, not his sight. Jillette has become one of the most outspoken libertarians in the country, appearing often on Glenn Beck’s Internet show, Fox News and other media networks to espouse his credo. His libertarian YouTube rants often go viral.
For those unfamiliar with magic and uninterested in libertarian politics, Jillette might be familiar for his role on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” On Sunday, it was revealed that Jillette reached the final four of this season’s All-Star edition, along with country singer Trace Adkins, rapper Lil John and actress Lisa Rinna.
Jillette wasn’t always a libertarian. A rebellious high school student who couldn’t stand his classmates being drunk and high — he claims he never so much had one sip of alcohol, much less dabbled in drugs — Jillette skipped college for clown school. Soon thereafter he met his diminutive counterpart Teller, a high school Latin teacher, ultimately forming a professional relationship that would become one of the most successful magic acts in history. (If CelebrityNetWorth.com is even remotely accurate, Jillette is personally worth north of $150 million.)
But when he was starting out in show business, Jillette says he was kind of a “classic jive ass, bullshit, Hollywood liberal,” not a libertarian. It was conversations with technology businessman Tim Jenison that helped change the way he thinks about the world.
“I don’t know what’s best for other people,” Jillette says, expounding his libertarian worldview.
“And what I’ve often said about libertarianism is it’s the freedom to be stupid. You don’t need freedom to do what everyone knows is the right thing. But you do need freedom to be stupid. I’m talking about the freedom of the most brilliant math person that lives in this country right now deciding to work at McDonalds. That’s the freedom I want for people.”
His libertarianism is also a moral one, rooted in his belief about when the use of force is justified.
“I believe if I want to eat a hamburger I would kill a cow,” he explains.
“I believe if someone came in here and was trying to kill you, I would use the force necessary to stop you from being killed to protect you. I believe I would use force to stop a rape — if I weren’t a coward, you know, if I weren’t incompetent at doing that, I’m talking about theoretically. I wouldn’t morally draw the line.”
But, he adds, “I myself would not use force to build a library. I would beg you. I would persuade you.”
And make no mistake, Jillette believes the government’s power to tax is a forceful act.
“So many people say, ‘you know, your taxes aren’t taken by force,’ and that’s foolish,” he said.
“If you don’t pay your taxes and you don’t answer the warrant and you don’t go to court, eventually someone will pull a gun. Eventually someone with a gun will show up. I want everything the government does to be done, I just want it to be done voluntarily.”
So what does Jillette think is the proper role of government?
“I think defense, police, courts,” he said. “I can’t quite — and people are working on me and they might win — I don’t quite think I can feel good about private police.”
But he isn’t entirely confident of his own position, saying that there are moments he wonders whether there might actually be good reason for a safety net.
“Sometimes when people say, ‘Shouldn’t there be a cradle to grave safety net and shouldn’t that be done,’ I kind of go, ‘You know, maybe,'” he said.
“I do worry that I’m wrong on that and I worry that I’m wrong on it on both sides. I also worry the anarcho-capitalist people [when] they make their arguments and I kind of go, ‘Geez, that could be right.'”
In the current version of his act, Jillette weaves in elements of his libertarian philosophy, including his disdain for the Transportation Security Administration screenings at airports. He claims in his show that it is airport security after the 9/11 attacks that spurred his decision to get off the road and spend most of his time performing at the Rio in Las Vegas. But Jillette tells TheDC that this is only “kind of, sorta” true.
“Of course you could say that I would have stopped because of my children — I probably would have — but we were having, I mean, we have an entire crew of freedom fighters,” he explained. “So there would be eight of us moving around the country through airports. And just about every day a different person would flip out. It was just amazing.”
Jillette says he would have less of a problem with airport security screening if it were run by private companies, “as long as there would be competition.”
Not wanting just to complain, Jillette has his own idea for an airline where security wouldn’t be necessary. He calls it “Penn’s Bacon and a Kiss Airline” and it is much more vulgar than it sounds.
“Right before you get on the plane there is a man and a woman naked from the waste down and a plate of bacon. Everyone that goes on the plane must take a piece of bacon and eat it, and then drop down on knees and kiss the genitals of the opposite sex. Kiss both because of transgender people,” he explains.
“In most of the religions where people blow up shit, that assures them of not getting into heaven.”
“If for some reason you’re some sort of hung up homophobe,” he says, “you can go through a full pat down.”
“I contend I could even get the people having their genitals kissed to do it for free and I bet I could get the bacon donated,” he adds, pretending he is serious about the venture. “I bet it would cost nothing more.”
Jillette has been outspoken in his advocacy for the legalization of drugs. In one viral YouTube clip, he railed against President Obama for joking about doing drugs as a young man while the government continues to put marijuana smokers behind bars. His passion for the cause is especially striking considering Jillette’s claims about never touching drugs or alcohol.
“I give a different answer every time, which is the best way of saying I don’t know,” he says, explaining his reason for abstaining. “My parents were teetotalers and my grandparents were — it’s all the way back. It’s New England puritanical tradition.”
Jillette says he is so against alcohol personally that he once prevented the late Christopher Hitchens from consuming alcohol at his house, which, given Hitchens’ fabled alcohol consumption, is quite impressive.
“I’ve never had a sip of alcohol, I would not let Christopher Hitchens bring alcohol into my home,” Jillette exclaimed. “You have not met somebody who is more of a fucking nut than me. I’m further gone than all the Mormons put together. I don’t drink caffeine. I’m fucking gone.”
But Obama’s prohibitionist stance on drugs enrages him. When TheDC met up with Jillette, it was a couple days after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, wherein the president made yet another joke about getting high in his youth.
“Barack Obama talks, you know, says in his book he did ‘a little blow.’ Now no one that does a little blow says a little blow,” Jillette ranted. “You don’t say a little blow unless you’re pretty familiar with cocaine.”
“People are doing real, honest, no kidding time for marijuana,” he raged. “The idea that the President of the United States of America somehow thinks that people who did exactly what he did should do time, I mean, it is appalling, appalling to me. And then for him to be cute and wink about it.”
“I want it all legal because it is not my job to make that decision for other people. I know for a fact that Bob Dylan does more beautiful stuff than I will ever do and I know that he’s used drugs. You get to pilot this one fucking ship — that’s you. Trey Parker sits with me and goes, ‘you know, by not doing drugs you’re fucking up your whole life.’ He makes that argument to me. And you know, it’s a really good argument. Trey Parker did Book of Mormon. It’s the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen. He does ‘South Park.’ It’s wonderful. You can’t make any argument that Trey Parker would be better off without drugs. What the fuck would he be? Would he be running the whole world? How much better can you be than Trey Parker?”
Underlying Jillette’s rage is his anger over America’s complex legal framework, under which he says no one can be sure they are entirely law abiding.
“We’ve created a country where with income tax and environmental and all these regulations, there isn’t one legal scholar who is sure they can’t be arrested,” he says.
“They do this fucking Al Capone thing where we’re all so happy and so excited, ‘They couldn’t catch him, but they got him on income tax evasion.’ And we celebrate that, like ‘Haha, see how clever we were.’ Fuck you. If you can’t get him for the crimes he actually did, you don’t get him. We don’t want to live in a country where we can go, ‘You know, we couldn’t getcha on what we wanted to getcha you on, so we gotcha on this other thing, haha.’ What the fuck is that?”
The Libertarian Party will never win a presidential election. Its candidates are more vehicles to spread the libertarian philosophy and push for the major parties to adopt some of their policies than to actually take the Oval Office, even if the party’s most ardent activists don’t realize this. So why not Jillette for president? He’s a professional communicator who can articulate the libertarian cause succinctly and convincingly — certainly better than Bob Barr and Gary Johnson can.
While Jillette says he was approached about running for Las Vegas mayor, he doesn’t think elective politics is right for him.
“I think people like me are at their best as a loose cannon,” he explains. “I think that real responsibility on my shoulders would be a disservice. I know that I’m wrong about a lot of shit. I know that I am. I don’t know exactly what stuff it is I’m wrong about. I don’t trust myself. I like to be successful. … I think I’m pretty well suited for the job that I have.”
“I don’t like the idea of compromise,” he continued, saying he lacks the pragmatic element that is essential to the political process.
“I don’t respect it, and I don’t like it. When Teller and I work on something we try to never compromise. If I have one position and he has another, we don’t try to decide which position we’re going to go to. We try to find another position that we can agree on that’s not compromise. A position that we both agree on more. I think in government you can’t do that. I think that’s a luxury of art.”
Correction: This piece has been corrected to note actress Lisa Rinna, not Marilu Henner, reached the final four of “Celebrity Apprentice.”