I’ve been finding more and more things about which to disagree with Penn Jillette, as I’ve been learning and making up my mind about libertarianism. He’s still a great guy, and a fantastic performer, and I have not a shred of doubt that his politics are consistently driven by compassion and humility, even when I think he has the wrong idea.
But I know just about enough now to have some kind of opinion about this recent Penn Point:
If a billionaire like Warren Buffett thinks he’s not being taxed enough, why doesn’t he give the government some cash? He clearly wants the government to have more of his money, and there are ways he can just make a donation. That should make him happy and feel like he’s doing good, right?
Penn knows why Warren Buffett doesn’t do this, obviously. Buffett’s smart enough to give a lot of his money to, for instance, Bill Gates, who might do something with it such as vaccinate children, rather than to the US government, who are more likely to use it to start another war. So why does Buffett talk like he wants the government to have more money?
This is where I think Penn’s missing the point. It’s not that Buffett wants the government to grow bigger and richer and stronger, and have more money in an absolute sense. But if it’s going to insist that it needs to raise funds to pay for all its shiny wars and such like, then someone like Buffett is best placed to take the hit.
If he knew that a donation from him would directly reduce the tax burden faced by all his countrymen in households earning below $20,000 a year, I think he might consider it. But that’s not how the government operates, so instead he’s acknowledging that the mega-rich are in a better position to take on an increased burden than the millions living below the poverty line. To the extent that taxes have to be collected, Warren Buffett is advocating shifting the balance so that slightly more of the burden rests with billionaires than is currently the case.
Of course, whether the government really needs to be collecting as much money through taxes as it plans to is another matter. Any possible savings on favoured governmental extravagances, like extended military actions and imprisoning people for victimless crimes, should be fully explored before we start deciding that money needs to be collected at all. I don’t know if Warren Buffett’s brought this up much, and maybe it’s something he should be putting more emphasis on.
But I don’t think it’s fair to conclude from his remarks that he’s a devout statist, or that he’s a hypocrite for not writing President Obama a cheque. “Let’s give the government more money” might be a deeply problematic rallying cry from any angle, but at least he understands the relative privilege of his position, and recognises the hardships of others, more than many of his class seem capable of.