Penn & Teller On Taxes

Penn & Teller, the Las Vegas Headliner magicians/comedians with their own Showtime TV program (entitled Bullshit!), recently dedicated an episode to taxation. And it’s great! Not only is it ideologically very libertarian, but it was also, well, very funny! I know putting the words ‘funny’ and ‘tax’ in the same sentence is normally unheard of, but they managed to pull it off quite well.

Obviously it’s focused on the U.S, and designed for the layperson rather than political activist, but I think most of it applies equally to the Australian situation, and is well worth a watch.

You can download a copy at [removed] (where you have to sign up for some spam or some such first but it really is quite worth it – I just used a fake email).

So, enjoy! 🙂

(Warning: Contains extensive profanity and brief full frontal nudity. Which depending on your workplace might raise a few eyebrows.)

Update: Due to copyright restrictions, I’ve removed link from this post. Sorry. Feel free to debate intellectual property rights in the comments :p

46 thoughts on “Penn & Teller On Taxes

  1. NO NO NO!!! DON’T see Penn and Teller! They are Communists! I saw their British show once, and they gave away, for FREE, Magical tricks and secrets! Only commies believe that everything should be publicly owned, including secrets! (Except for state secrets, which don’t matter as the state will wither away…)

  2. I really want to see that Bullshit episode, but those surveys are a serious pain and I gave up. I hope my computer isn’t full of adware now…

  3. Hmm. I should probably note my bias in promoting that episode since my boss is featured (but Grover = awesome 🙂 )

  4. See, they’re distracting you with socialist visions of free love! There ain’t no such thing as a free love-in! Resist these insidious believers in magic! Come back to gritty reality!

  5. Is Intellectual Property really property? Anarcho-capitalists think not.
    My own view is that we should have Public Intellectual Property, where the public authorities regulate whatever goes on public roads, or through public spaces. If you copy a copyrighted item on your own land, you might be forbidden from using it on public lands, or advertising it on or through public spaces.

  6. I don’t agree with the idea to protect intellectual property because:
    A) It’s a government intervention into the market
    B) I can share ideas completely freely without being deprived of them myself

  7. But what if you had an idea which had commercial prospects? You can protect your invention then. What if you wrote a book? Would you just give it away, after all that effort to write it?
    And doesn’t the government protect the marketplace, which is the rationale for policing it?

  8. “But what if you had an idea which had commercial prospects? You can protect your invention then. What if you wrote a book? Would you just give it away, after all that effort to write it?
    And doesn’t the government protect the marketplace, which is the rationale for policing it?”
    I reject that. The government is not there to protect profits, plain and simple (it’s that kind of idea that gave rise to the bailout culture prevalent today). It’s only valid purpose is to protect life, liberty and property (even then its purpose is shaky). I’m not saying that you should be forced to open up your ideas, I’m saying that the only protection it can possibly have is that which you give it yourself.

  9. Steve, you first have to ask whether inventions are property. If the answer is yes, then it is valid to expect the government to protect them. We expect it to provide protection against physical property theft via the criminal justice system. We don’t define it as market intervention when government courts enforce contracts or lock up burglars.

    I regard intellectual property as property that warrants the same sort of protection. I disagree with some of the characteristics of that protection (eg the duration of copyright), but that’s a different matter.

    If you do not consider inventions to be property, you are essentially socialising their value.

  10. “you are essentially socialising their value.”

    Nonsense; value is subjective. A lack of intellectual property rights simply means that inventors who’ve ‘published’ their invention in some way wouldn’t be able to forcefully exclude others from using their invention outside of explicit contracts. If you believe that property rights (ie, the right to exclude others from use) in tangible goods are justified due to the scarcity of ‘stuff’ (and thus the inherent conflict in use of ‘stuff’) – then IP cannot be justified along the same lines as no such natural conflict exists. If your basis for property rights comes through some other line of thought (such as the Objectivist line) then you may reach a different conclusion.

  11. I think the invention is property, and the inventor has every right to keep it & how it’s built a secret (not the case now for things like pharmaceuticals), and charge whatever the hell they want for it (also not the case with pharmaceuticals). But I don’t think they ought to have the right to stop me from building the same thing if I work out how. If a corporation’s given a monopoly over some important drug, then price controls are enforced. This leads to corporate welfare.

  12. Agreed Tinos, an invention is an arrangement or configuration of property you already own (including your brain.) How you dispose of your own property is up to you. IP rights exclude others from arranging their own property in particular ways and thus increase the potential for conflict over scarce goods (which I would argue is what property rights are intended to reduce.)

  13. Steve, you first have to ask whether inventions are property. If the answer is yes, then it is valid to expect the government to protect them. We expect it to provide protection against physical property theft via the criminal justice system. We don’t define it as market intervention when government courts enforce contracts or lock up burglars.

    I regard intellectual property as property that warrants the same sort of protection. I disagree with some of the characteristics of that protection (eg the duration of copyright), but that’s a different matter.

    If you do not consider inventions to be property, you are essentially socialising their value.

    I don’t believe the invention itself is property. The idea can just as easily exist in the minds of two people as it can in the mind of one, unlike my coffee cup which my housemates steal periodically. Enacting an enforced monopoly is more or less the same as the government telling me what to do with these materials in my backyard with which I was planning to build a cat toy laser (Patent no. 5443036) or maybe even to electrify my tablecloth (patent no. 5107620). They are inherently open to abuse by special interests, and I see no reason to entrust that power to the government when the applicants can’t be arsed keeping the design to themselves anyway

    I think the invention is property, and the inventor has every right to keep it & how it’s built a secret (not the case now for things like pharmaceuticals), and charge whatever the hell they want for it (also not the case with pharmaceuticals). But I don’t think they ought to have the right to stop me from building the same thing if I work out how. If a corporation’s given a monopoly over some important drug, then price controls are enforced. This leads to corporate welfare.

    My thoughts exactly 😉

  14. Whilst I tend to think you are right about private property, and the right to make what you like on it, what about PUBLIC property? Wouldn’t the government, which I concede owns public property, have the right to licence what goes on, or through, the property and space which it owns? If, for instance, I just broke copyright by copying all the Harry Potter books, and advertised on the radio or TV, shouldn’t I be sued in court?
    Would you repeal copyright laws? Or limit them to public spaces, like I want to do?

  15. I’d get rid of them. If the original provider decided to stop selling his wares because of that, I’m sure someone else would fill that demand eventually

    The government shouldn’t own land anyway, and if we follow your line of reasoning we can hypothesise that the government may institute a curfew on public land because it ‘owns’ said property.

  16. Just as any owner of land should be able to do.
    This is an area in which anarcho-capitalism has a weakness- public land is useful! It is convenient! And if it doesn’t have a government as an owner, then it will be privatised into little tollways, and the utility will disappear!

  17. “public land is useful! It is convenient! And if it doesn’t have a government as an owner, then it will be privatised into little tollways, and the utility will disappear!”

    I don’t think you can assume that. Eg, I live close to Bermondsey Square in London. It’s privately owned (and proudly makes that clear with a number of signs) and is about a hectare of mainly open paved space with some cafes, a small cinema and a sainbury’s around the edges. There are these log-seat things about the place and bike racks etc. It’s essentially treated as a commons, but is clean, attractive and safe unlike other public commons in the area (and it’s a pretty nasty area in general). Westfield’s and things like that are similar. Private owners want people to enter their property as they’re likely to profit from it. Tolls are only an option, not a rule.

  18. But if the only thing you owned were these narrow strips of land called roads, and people wanted neutral spaces like roads to meet on, and transport their goods through, who owns that? And how do you stop them fragmenting into the arrangement that prevailed in France in Voltaire’s day, where every transport across county lines incurred extra costs? He looked at England, and saw a better system at work, but it took the French Revolution to get rid of these roadway robber barons!

  19. “Intellectual property” is not property in any normal meaning of the word. It is an entirely artificial construct, made by government. What I call “fiat property”. And fiat property always comes at the expense of actual property rights.

    Other examples of fiat property are taxi licences (which take away the real property right that people should have over their own cars) or carbon credits (which take away the real property right that people have over their own businesses).

    Ideas exist in people’s brains. The owner of an idea is the owner of the brain. Yes, it is true that multiple people can “own” the same idea… which is an obvious consequence of having a society where more than one person has a brain. I see no problem with that.

    A more honest name for “intellectual property” would be “government mandated temporary monopoly”. That is exactly what it is. Your “property right” is a “monopoly licence”. As a general rule, I don’t think the government should allocate monopoly rights to people.

    There is a reasonable case for the government allocating short-term monopoly rights to people who think of a really funky new idea. This is a government benefit given to people who do something with a big positive externality (the so-called “knowledge spillover”). I can see the argument and there is certainly some benefit to it. But there are also costs… and I’m not confident that the benefits exceed the costs.

    But either way, we should remove the words “intellectual property rights” from the lexicon and replace them with the more honest “short-term monopoly rights”. That would make clear that IPR holders are getting a government subsidy and would therefore (hopefully) reduce the ever-present calls for ever-more subsidies.

  20. Nice try, John, but no free cigar!
    If I own property, that means that I monopolise it, and am the sole owner. My real estate property is a monopoly, or would be, if we could just get governments back onto the roads, and out of my land!
    And aren’t our ideas of property just intellectual concepts that we have invented; i.e., all property is a form of intellectual property? I know that animals mark out territory, but they also fight over this, and it is subject to constant arbitration, a feature of the law of the jungle, where size or numbers are all that matter.
    And my own position, PUBLIC intellectual property, where the government owns and rules PUBLIC spaces and roads, and can licence their use, resolves many paradoxes.

  21. Either I own my brain (and the brainwaves) or I don’t.

    And no, physical property isn’t an abstract idea. It exists by definition once you have decision making creatures in a place with finite resources. You can’t abolish it. You can’t remove it. The only decisions you have is (1) who owns it; and (2) how ownership is transferred.

    To defend IPR laws you need to defend that idea that the government should be allowed to partially control the brains of people. While there are arguments for that, it is not appropriate to pretend that government nationalisation of my brain is somehow a libertarian or capitalist position. It’s my brain. In a free world I will use it as I see fit (as long as I’m peaceful).

    I think the way you use “monopoly” does more to hide the issue than explain it. By monopoly, I mean being the only person (or business) in an industry. And I was referring to a specific situation where the government legislates that a person (or business) has a monopoly for a fixed period of time, and makes it illegal for other people to compete.

    I also think it is unhelpful to use “public” and “government” as synonyms.

  22. And my own position, PUBLIC intellectual property, where the government owns and rules PUBLIC spaces and roads, and can licence their use, resolves many paradoxes.

    And how does it acquire that land? Through theft and coercion. It isn’t voluntary trade at all, and as such shouldn’t be their property

  23. Here in Australia, all land was ‘acquired’ by Governments taking it from the Aborigines. You could argue that ALL land around the world is illegitimate, because it was taken at an earlier time from someone else. (And Aboriginal tribes fought each other for lands, as well!)
    So just saying that governments are thieves is not an argument. If you want to return to your ancestoral lands, leaving Australia to the tribes, you can go ahead. I’ll stay here.
    And my argument is not about past misdeeds of governments, but what we can do now. I think we should reform it by limiting it to community properties, like roads, leaving private properties strictly alone. Since these new entities would own the roads, they could decide what to allow on the roads, by issuing licences. They should have the same rights over their properties as I want on my property!
    Or would you just leave the roads for squatters to set up tolls on, as robber barons used to do?

  24. I don’t accept that saying “I own land” gives somebody legitimate ownership of land. So I don’t accept that the government ever “owned” Australia. Indeed, that seems like an inherently socialist way to view a country.

    My preference is for land to be acquired either through voluntary exchange or through home-steading. I accept that some current ownership is the result of previous theft, and that is unfortunate. Where possible, there should be efforts made to redress previous thefts. However, the real concern is not what happened in the past, but what will happen in the future.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “community properties”. If you are using “community” and “government” as synonyms, then I suggest that such a use of language will lead to confusion.

  25. As a Minarchist, I want Local Governments to be democratic, and limited solely to non-private property. I want such local governments to be the top tier of power, federally, with other levels just for conferences.

  26. Ostralion wrote “Here in Australia, all land was ‘acquired’ by Governments taking it from the Aborigines”.

    Ah… in many cases, particularly in South Australia, the colonising associations made sincere efforts at purchasing land from the locals. They may or may not have had a “meeting of minds” about what was being sold, but they certainly handed over valuables for it.

  27. I believe it was Murray Rothbard who wrote of the homestead principle: Any unused land may be claimed if you can make a valid claim that you intend to use it (I paraphrase, but that’s more or less what he said of it). The aboriginals may have had a nomadic lifestyle, but were they using all land, all the time? No. Yes they were slaughtered unfairly, (I know I’m setting up a shitstorm by saying this…) but Australia was declared terra nullius because it looked like it wasn’t in use. You can argue the illegality of this, but to say that you somehow have a greater claim over a tract of land then a current inhabitant because someone in your distant ancestry may have pitched a humpee there 3000 years ago is just silly

  28. Steve, that’s why I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the right approach would have been to treat the aborigines not as owning the land but as owning certain kinds of rights over it, e.g. hunting, fishing, foraging for plant foods, fuel and shelter materials, etc. (apart from special cases like the place where Eddie Mabo actually lived – but which shouldn’t have been taken as setting a general rule for all areas and tribes). That is, they should have had those rights bought out where they were incompatible with other uses, maybe outright as a one off or with continuing quit rents – but they had no claim to land as such where they weren’t dealing with it that way already, as Eddie Mabo was, so they shouldn’t have been bought off for that.

  29. Actually, whatever it looked like, Australia was owned, and the tribes had battles over territory. They would move to another one of their lands, and allow their previous home to lie fallow for a while, which is a standard farming practice today. A person can own more than one home, even if you only see them in one home at a time. We did not realise that at the time, but we did take their land. I feel we should concede that this was unwitting resumption on our part, and pay the tribes the current value of the land, and we can all move on.

  30. Ostralion, you would be absolutely right except for one thing: what they owned was not land, in our sense of the word (which was rather the point). Making out that it was can lead to two serious consequences: compensating them for the wrong things (which can be over-compensating); or, “restoring” to them something different from what they actually had. The latter not only does not make things right (since they don’t get back what they had), it can fall apart in their hands and be of no use to them (since they haven’t yet acquired the physical and cultural toolkit to maintain and benefit from it). That’s not just a sort of condescension, it’s based on the real experience of the past, e.g. what happened when the US allotment movement tried to give Indian territory “back” to Indians in the form of individual holdings.

  31. So, Steve, since our governments have somehow ‘acquired’ the land used for roads, what should ‘they’ do with it? Should we follow Switzerland’s example of strong local cantons, in a confederation? Or should we sell it piecemeal, to whoever bids the most for a section?

  32. Return it to REAL public status. Since it’s been upkept with taxpayer funding, it is therefore every taxpayer’s property; a real public good rather than an owned one.

  33. If anyone can explain what Steve means by this, please do! Is Steve a closet Commie?
    What would be the practical effects of all us taxpayers having a joint tenancy in ‘public’ property? Don’t we already do this, through voting for Governments which control public roads?
    Can you give us an example of what you mean, Steve

  34. Is Steve a closet Commie?
    That’s a bit rich with your comments further up >_>

    Think of it in simple terms: There’s a small village about 1km from a running stream. Over time the villagers all take the same route down to the stream to use the running water and a path forms. Who owns this road? It is a result of everyone walking down to the stream, so everyone’s labour is mixed in with it and thus it is a true communal resource. I bet you if you tried to enter parliament house or the lodge at 11pm they’d shoot you before you got in the gates and it is classified as ‘public’ property

  35. Steve, that ‘road’ is just a rut in the field. What if someone paves it- do they own it?

  36. If, through voluntary trade they acquire it, yes, they would own it. If they pave it and declare it theirs without so much as a warning it amounts to no more than fraud

  37. Steve, property exists whenever you have multiple decision making creatures and scarce resources.

    In the case of the road that several people walk on that you mention, the path is not a scarce resource. That is, there were no cases where different people wanted to make different decisions about the path. So ownership is moot. This is the same situation that existed with some aboriginal groups and their relationship to land.

    As soon as the path becomes contested then ownership will evolve one way or another. This is true by definition.

    The initial allocation of the property rights can be messy. In the case of the path, when a new guy shows up and wants to plow the path to grow magic beans, that might inspire the original path walkers to get together and declare their joint ownership (10 path-walkers with 10% share each perhaps) over the path… on the basis that they were the previous uncontested controllers of the path (ie they had homesteaded it). It rarely worked out that cleanly in reality.

    This is all abstract anyway. It is rare in the modern world to find instances where there is no scarcity. Most things are already owned…. the prominent exception being the oceans & space.

  38. Yes, TerjeP, The capitalist at both ends, you still own your mind if you lose it, but you will have to pay a finder’s fee!

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