Question for Penn Jillette

Hemant Mehta is looking for questions to ask Penn Jillette and I have one I’d really like to ask him:

How can you justify the position that the free market free of governmental oversight serves as an effective solution to corporate malfeasance when even your own show has demonstrated time and time again (such as the shows on new age medicine, bottled water, and environmentalism when people signed petitions to ban water from the environment) that consumers are easily fooled by dishonest marketing, consumers often don’t act in their own best interests, and that corporations rarely voluntarily choose to be responsible citizens and act in the best interests of their communities?

In the following clip, Penn directly states that he thinks “that nobody wants to be more careful about how they treat their customers than business people”:

He couches his rhetoric in words like “I like to think”, which seems to be to just another way of saying “I have faith in X” and I’m willing to risk human lives on that faith. Even his own show demonstrates this claim is plainly false. Tobacco companies are looking out for their customers? Ridiculous! And this is the kind of myth perpetuated by the corporations themselves, such as Big Tobacco. There’s a funny clip from the film Thank You For Smoking where a tobacco lobbyist says the same thing, that it’s in the best interest of Big Tobacco to keep their customers alive and healthy:

If Penn believes that sort of bullshit, I think that makes him a lousy skeptic.

Besides, doesn’t the whole democratic process contain a component of free market thinking. Penn doesn’t seem to trust politicians very much (nor should he), but by his reasoning, nobody should be more concerned with keeping us safe and happy than a politician wanting to be reelected. Why is money a sufficient incentive but maintaining power not sufficient? The answer is it’s the same thing. Politicians AND corporations lie, cheat, and steal for their own benefits. But if you ask a politician, they’ll tell you it’s in their best interests to serve the people well if they want to get reelected. And if you ask the corporate lobbyists, they’ll say it’s in the financial interests of the companies they represent to keep their customers safe and happy too. Tell that to Goldman and Sacks or JP Morgan or BP, or Toyota.

Another great film clip is Edward Norton explaining “The Formula” in Fight Club:



3 Responses to Question for Penn Jillette

  1. There is, to my mind, a paradox at the heart of the free market. It’s one that some researchers and economists acknowledge as a major one.

    Information asymmetry.

    Put simply no one consumer has the information necessary to make a truly informed purchase. They cannot know if a new product that might more meet their needs is being developed by a company. They likely lack the technical expertise to know whether what they are buying is the best for them (or indeed if it can do all the wonderful things that are claimed of it).

    They have to trust the information that the company puts out. With only other customers opinions and reviews (and even perhaps other companies slagging off the product covertly or overtly) to go on they simply can’t make an informed judgement.

    Also even with all this potentially biased and unreliable information out there the human brain simply can’t cope with all of it to make an informed and rational decision.

    This asymmetry of information puts the power firmly in the power of producers and salesmen. It parodies the idea that a free market can efficiently produce the best goods at the best prices.

    To do that one would think the free market would have to paradoxically regulate producers to ensure absolute transparency and allow the pretence of homo economious to persist…

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