Government, Libertarianism, and the Two Worlds: An Open Letter to Glenn Beck and Penn Jillette

January 5, 2013 by  


Your December 6, 2012 discussion on The Blaze in respect of Mr. Jillette’s book “Every Day Is An Atheist Holiday” has been forwarded to me by a person who asks “How can we better expand our tent without compromising any principles?”. Having now watched your discussion with great interest, I offer you the following in the hope that you might find it helpful in your efforts to build a big tent that is actually pro-freedom.


Recognizing the Purpose of a Human Individual’s Life

If you were to have to abandon every other point of commonality, I would have you reinforce at least this one: the purpose of an individual’s life. In protest against British rule that had exceeded its rightful role, the Declaration of Independence asserted that every individual has a right to “…the pursuit of Happiness”. That meant – and means – that the government must recognize that it is morally right for an individual to use her (or his) time on this earth to pursue her own happiness. And, because that is recognized as an individual human being’s purpose in life, a government does not take it upon itself to treat an individual as though the pursuit of his own happiness is not his purpose. A government does not, for example, threaten a person with fine or imprisonment or death for failing to abandon his pursuit of happiness, and surrender a person’s body and mind to the purposes of his neighbour.

The pursuit of happiness is not a reference to “if it feels good do it”. It is a reference to the pursuit of things that nature, including the physical nature of human beings, requires each of us to pursue if each of us is to survive and to achieve happiness. These things include not only material values (necessities like shelter, and luxuries like jewellery) but also spiritual values (e.g., the love of a spouse, praise for ones creative or athletic achievements, etc.). And, because a human being is not omnipotent but is rather subject to the laws of physics and biology, ones nature is such that, if one is to survive, one must expend mental and physical effort (for the religious among us: “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19). Our nature gives us no choice: if we are to succeed, we must pursue material and spiritual values in a practical – an effective – way.

For human beings – the “rational animals” – the only effective way is the rational way: through independent thought and action, with integrity and honesty, justly and productively. Irrational means are not practical or effective (especially not in the long term). For example, theft has never planted a seed or harvested a crop. Rape has never produced love. Murder has never done either. Thus, “the pursuit of happiness” necessarily implies “the pursuit of happiness by rational means“. That is why Jefferson also asserted that you and each of your neighbours have “rights” of “life” and “liberty”: the pursuit of happiness, he was asserting rightly, never involves the murder, enslavement, or expropriation of ones neighbour.


The Myth of the Ballot and Crown: What A Government Is, and Why

As you know, Jefferson, on behalf of thirteen British colonies, was writing to the King of Great Britain. He was asserting that the King had violated the lives and liberty of those living in the 13 colonies. Regrettably, he implied that those violations were being carried out by a “Form of Government”. In truth, a group of people with guns who go about violating your life, your liberty, or your property is not any “Form of Government” at all. It is an organized criminal gang. Were the mafia to run a slate of candidates, and become elected by the majority of Americans, that would not imply that when it wrote laws saying it could murder, extort, and steal, it would be engaging in governance. Governance – by definition – is the defence of every individual’s life, liberty, and property. The violation of life, liberty, or property is never governance.

What determines whether or not you have a government is not the count of ballots: it is the conduct of those who make and enforce laws. Just as a crown did not make the King of Great Britain’s violations of life, liberty, and property “governance”, his crown likewise did not make him a “government” of the American colonists. To be a government, he needed simply to govern. And, when he failed to govern – when he instead deliberately violated the lives, liberty, and property of those in the 13 colonies – he ceased to be a government of any “Form” at all. The revolutionaries did not fight a bad “Form of Government”. Rather, they created a government to defend themselves against a British criminal organization.

Why is this distinction important? Because it bears on the issue of the libertarian expression of a desire for “less government” or “smaller government”.


Pro-Freedom Implies Pro-Government, not Libertarian “Less Government”

One cannot “walk toward Graceland” by “walking away from Denver”: there’s a minute, random chance that you’ll end up at Graceland if you walk away from Denver, but you might just as well end up in Portland or New York City. Likewise, one cannot walk toward individual freedom or a free society by simply walking away from government: “less” does not specify what, exactly, is being reduced. “Less food” does not necessarily mean fewer vegetables: it might mean no meat. Likewise, “less government” can mean fewer taxes, but it can also mean the elimination of government efforts to prevent drunken political protestors from crowding and littering government-owned parks. For that reason, the Occupy Wall Street folks were indeed libertarians – as Mr. Beck asserted – precisely because they too wanted “less government” interference in such things as defecating on the flag in a public space or (as in Toronto) less government resistance to such things as lighting police cars on fire. They were libertarian despite their sympathies for big government in other areas, like wealth redistribution, because libertarianism says nothing about either (a) the extent to which one wants government to stop doing things, nor (b) the particular things that one wants the government to stop doing. Hence some “libertarians” (e.g., Murray Rothbard and Noam Chomsky) are anarchists, whilst some say they want some government. And, among those who want some government (but less government), some libertarians want government to stop preventing drunken orgies near the childrens’ slide in a public park, and others want not to have to pay for the condoms and booze via their taxes.

My point is this: when one fights a McBama administration by calling for “less government”, one is giving the McBama administration a false identity: one is conceding, erroneously, that the McBama administration is a government. The fight for a free society cannot be won by conceding that a criminal gang is a government. To demand of a criminal gang “less government” is to concede that the criminal gang is a government, but that it is merely “too much” government. That’s not too unlike like saying that a prostitute is “too much” of a virgin, and demanding that he or she be “less virginal”.

Technically, you – we all – in fact, are living in a state of anarchy because there is no organized group of individuals making and enforcing laws for the sole purpose of defending your life, liberty, and property: there is no government, properly defined. It is only because you lack a government that your neighbour or the organized gang he elected can interfere with your pursuit of your own happiness.

Accordingly, it is a dreadful (though common and understandable) mistake to adopt libertarianism and its call for “less government”. If you want a free society, demand what it requires: a government. Let your battle cry be not “We have too much government and I want less”, but rather “We have no government, and our freedom requires that we form one now to defend every individual’s life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness!”.

Until you, and other advocates of individual freedom assert that you lack a government, you will be conceding to the enemies of freedom a propriety that they actually lack. The enemies of freedom are – necessarily – enemies of government. In other words: they are enemies of making and enforcing laws that defend every individual’s life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. If government is properly defined, it is a good thing for freedom, so one should not aid the enemies of freedom by asserting that one is an enemy of government. The advocate of freedom should not assert that he wants less of the very thing that is necessary for the preservation of his freedom: government. Those who want freedom should not sully themselves by slipping into bed with anti-government protestors. They should not call themselves “libertarian” or advocate “less government”. Instead, if they are to prevail against the enemies of freedom and government, they should call themselves pro-freedom advocates of governance/government.

Moreover, they must take care not to undermine their case by using adjectives. There is only one “form” of governance. It is called “governance”. The other stuff is called criminality. There is only one form of government. It is called “government”. The other things are called “criminal gangs”.

Advocates of freedom must take proud ownership of the words “governance” and “government”, and of the meanings of those words. They must deny that what the opponents of freedom want is governance and government. They must assert that those who want something for nothing want not a government, but an elected criminal organization. The enemies of freedom are not pro-government or “big government”: they are pro-crime, pro-gang, and anti-government.


The Separation of Gods and State

With respect to the other issue you discussed – the issue of such things as nativity scenes, or tablets of the 10 Commandments, being place on public property – let me agree with Mr. Jillette’s conclusions, but not with the particular reasons he expressed during your conversation. Mr. Jillette objects on the ground that his tax money or property is being used to promote religious ends. Mr. Beck rightly states that, in effect, once you pay that money, it’s all in a big government collective pot. And, he essentially states, if government were to spend in accordance with the wishes of all who contributed to the pot, then – by Mr. Jillette’s own argument – they should be able to put up religious ornaments on their property. I submit that the money argument is a red herring and that the essential issue is one upon which the two of you should agree.

When folks place religious symbols on government property – or, rather, when the government does not insist that such symbols not be placed on government property – government is implicitly appearing to say that god has a place in law-making or law-enforcement; that an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient entity’s will is considered when legislators decide whether or not to pass a law, or when a judge interprets a law, or when an officer lays a charge. For many who place religious symbols on government property, that is the point and purpose: they want god’s will to be revered in law-making, and in the interpretation and enforcement of laws. Hence we now have “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage almost 100 years after the founding of the United States, and “under God” being added to the pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s. The danger in these clear assertions of god’s supremacy, as Mr. Jillette might see it and as I do, is that such assertions threaten to change the scope of government power (from the limits of human beings, to the unlimited power of a god), and the identity of to whom government is accountable (from “the people” to “god”). In short, by allowing people to put religious symbols on government property, the government communicates to the public that – in making and enforcing laws – it treats god as supreme, such that it is accountable not to the people, but to a supernatural being; and such that the government’s powers are not limited to those of the governed, but are unlimited, having been given to it by an omnipotent god.

The central issue is whether government’s decisions should take into account the alleged laws, commandments, or wishes of anyone’s god or religion. Doubtless, Mr. Jillette does not expect elected legislators to be atheistic. Rather, he expects that – when deciding whether or not to make a law – they will not make a law so as to do any god’s will. He wants government to serve the governed, and only the governed; not Allah, not Yahweh, not God; and not the pope, or a mullah, or a rabbi. In short, he wants “democracy” (people power), not “theocracy” (god power) to be exercised on this earth. Indeed, Mr. Beck appears to agree, having pointed out that people cannot give government a power that people lack. Mr. Jillette wants a government that does not fancy itself to have the unlimited power or authority of a god, but rather only the limited, moral authority of ones neighbour. It would not surprise me to discover that, in that light, Mr. Beck would agree.

Indeed, some have argued that Jesus agreed. In an address delivered to members of the Bridgnorth Institute on February 26, 1877, Lord Acton argued that Jesus, by his words, gave mankind an understanding of the division of power that places limits upon the scope of the power left to the government of a free and just society:

“But when Christ said: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom.”

In other words, Jesus asserted, there are two worlds; two spheres of authority. The laws of life in Heaven are those laid down by God, but those are not the laws impose on man on earth and do not trump the laws of Caesar. The laws on earth are those laid down by Caesar (i.e., by government, properly defined). Caesar is not the hand of god on earth. He is the servant only of the governed, and his power is no greater than that rightly exercised by any one of them.

I respectfully submit that those who want the freedom to worship demand that government never fancy itself the hand of god on earth. I also strongly suggest that those who are indeed most religious should be most opposed to anyone placing religious symbols on government land.

I thank you both for discussing what too rarely is discussed: the nature of freedom and government itself. I hope that you find in what I write above at least some of it – if not all of it – to be of assistance in your advocacy of freedom.


Paul McKeever, B.Sc.(Hons), M.A., LL.B.
Lawyer, Leader of Freedom Party of Ontario (CANADA)

Law office: 106 Stevenson Road South, Oshawa, Ontario L1J 5M1; Tel: 905-721-9772


Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!