Penn Jillette mourns the loss of the Hummer, which will likely disappear after May 1st, when GM’s deadline for a bid on the production unit expires without any interest. It’s not the Hummer that Jillette will miss, though; he’s no fan of muscle cars, or cars in general, as he explained in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. Jillette will mourn the end of the idea that stupidity can be addressed by rational people in rational markets, rather than government making choices about winners and losers — and warns that stupidity and freedom exist in direct proportion to each other:
Hummers are stupid and wasteful and if they go away because no one wants to buy one, that’ll be just a little sad. It’s always a little sad to lose some stupid. I love people doing stupid things that I’d never do—different stupid things than all the stupid things I do. It reminds me that although all over the world we humans have so much in common, so much love, and need, and desire, and compassion and loneliness, some of us still want to do things that the rest of us think are bug-nutty. Some of us want to drive a Hummer, some of us want to eat sheep’s heart, liver and lungs simmered in an animal’s stomach for three hours, some us want to play poker with professionals and some of us want a Broadway musical based on the music of ABBA. I love people doing things I can’t understand. It’s heartbreaking to me when people stop doing things that I can’t see any reason for them to be doing in the first place. I like people watching curling while eating pork rinds.
But if any part of the Hummer going belly-up are those government rules we’re putting in on miles per gallon, or us taking over of GM, then I’m not just sad, I’m also angry. Lack of freedom can be measured directly by lack of stupid. Freedom means freedom to be stupid. We never need freedom to do the smart thing. You don’t need any freedom to go with majority opinion. There was no freedom required to drive a Prius before the recall. We don’t need freedom to recycle, reuse and reduce. We don’t need freedom to listen to classic rock, classic classical, classic anything or Terry Gross. We exercise our freedom to its fullest when we are at our stupidest.
There’s a lot of bad stupid around. Really bad stupid. But we can’t stop the real horror by stopping just-plain-stupid stupid. We’re not going to stop overseas wars by stopping people from driving big stupid cars. As long as we think that “nation building” is part of our destiny, no amount of independence from foreign oil is going to stop us from getting into meddling, expensive, immoral foreign wars. As long as we let terrorism fill us with terror, we’re not going to get our nonstupid freedoms back. Our government declaring that we need alternative energy sources, and betting our money on who might get a smart idea, is not going to give smart people smart ideas. It’s really easy to see stupid all around us, but I don’t think we want to be too quick to stop it. We need to protect other people’s stupid to save freedom for all of us.
I’ve never been terribly impressed with the Hummer either, but that doesn’t mean I think they should be outlawed — or more accurately, regulated into obsolescence. Consumers can choose cars that make sense for themselves. When the price of gas rose rapidly in 2007-8, consumers stopped buying gas guzzlers and bought cars with better fuel efficiency. Now that the economy has taken a nose dive, consumers have begun bargain shopping, too, both of which are rational reactions to market conditions.
Why can’t Washington simply allow the rational market determine the best choices for consumers? For one thing, it would mean that politicians would have a lot less to do, which would also mean special-interest groups would have a lot fewer reasons to donate cash. Politicians also feel the need to justify their existence by pointing to new ways in which they save Americans, mainly from themselves. Both impulses have a lot to do with why nanny-statism has been mainstreamed in American political thought over the last several decades.
Jillette’s right. We could think about stupidity being the canary in the coal mine. The only way to regulate against stupid choices is to take choice from people. Where stupidity gets regulated out of existence — or at least the elite’s idea about stupidity — then we will watch freedom disappear as well.
Addendum: Like many Hot Air readers, I am a big fan of Penn & Teller’s BS on Showtime. I don’t always agree, especially on matters of faith, but they do a great job in skewering the ridiculous and the oppressive and forcing their viewers to at least think about alternative viewpoints and approaches. In its understated way, this may have been the best article I’ve read from Jillette.