The Anti-Libertarian Republic: Austin Petersen Rejects Individualism
Austin Petersen was a guest on the Tom Woods Show on June 1, 2015. Viewed by many as a libertarian, Petersen’s statements are an affront to libertarianism properly considered as an application of the Non-Aggression Principle to human relations. I supplement Petersen’s statements with context and examples so that the reader may understand the true nature of libertarianism and learn of errors to avoid. I suggest listening to the interview, though this isn’t necessary.
Murray Rothbard wrote:
“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics … [b]ut it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”
Likewise, it is no crime to be ignorant of libertarian political philosophy, but it is “totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion while remaining in this state of ignorance.”
Part 1: Theory
What then to make of Austin Petersen of The Libertarian Republic? Clearly this is an individual of some talent and skill given his past position as Associate Producer of Judge Napalitano’s FreedomWatch and commercial success as proprietor of a for-profit (so-called) libertarian website. One would tend towards the conclusion that an individual with this background isn’t ignorant of libertarian political philosophy (or perhaps shouldn’t be).
However, as discussed below, Petersen’s thought is awash with error and incoherence. The puzzled observer is left thinking that it may not be Petersen’s knowledge of certain literature and concepts that’s defective, but his perception and understanding (what Mises would call Verstehen in German) of them. In short, something has gone terribly wrong in the mind of Petersen. His ideas will be explored below for the sole purpose of illustrating his errors such that critical thinkers may avoid them.
The source of Petersen’s errors is his misunderstanding of rights. In one of his most (in)famous pieces 5 Reasons Why I’m Not An Anarchist, he writes:
“A right is something that MUST be provided” (emphasis in original).
It is vital to understand at this point that definitions are helpful for conception–that they are useful–if and only if, they provide distinction. For example, mainstream economists believe in something called a public good. A public good is non-rival (one person’s consumption of a good doesn’t affect another’s) and non-excludable (one can’t prevent people from consuming a good). But they admit that it’s difficult for something to be totally non-excludable and totally non-rival. To accommodate this, they introduce impurity. Thus, if an individual’s consumption of a good may in fact deter someone else’s consumption of that good to some degree, and if it is in fact possible to exclude consumption of the good to some degree, then the good is just an impure public good.
Identifying resources as impure public goods is the first step in the ideological justification for banning, by threat of violent punishment by government, the production of the good or service by private producers. Under public goods theory, the state is consequentially, solely responsible for the production of these items. This in turn is the justification for periodic seizure of individuals’ property; namely, that “taxes” are necessary in order to fund the production of these goods.
Economists who believe this nonsense are committing the same error as Petersen. They don’t understand the purpose of definitions. If a good may be considered public because it is non-exludable and non-rival at all (or “to some degree”), then all goods may be considered public goods. If all goods may be considered as public goods (with varying levels of arbitrary purity), then what’s the use of the concept of a public good?! Public goods theory amounts to mental gymnastics without the positive effects of exercise. It is useless, meaningless, and unhelpful at best, and dangerous and evil at worst.
And so is Petersen’s definition of rights.
If a right is something that “MUST” be provided, then everything may be considered a right. What good is the concept of rights if it can be tortured and brutalized to mean anything that anyone wants? This inherent nihilism–the belief that nothing is real, that everything is meaningless–pervades Petersen’s entire system of thought. There is no doubt that this Sherman’s March against reason is fertile soil for blog posts, articles, and other media that serves as the primary source of income for Petersen. After all, if nothing’s real, if all of life is meaningless, then one may sit back and ponder endlessly, in useless loops, with never a passing thought as to validity and truth.
Note here that Petersen does not argue very much in the Woods interview, since his recourse is almost uniformly to meaninglessness, e.g. when he says that “reality is fuzzy” rather than clear, that rights “may be innumerable,” that “anarchy would result in [an undefined] tyranny” (comment added), etc. Argument requires recourse to something. Regal musing and rambling is just that; it is not argument. At some points in the interview, Petersen makes this blatantly clear. Woods keenly remarks that Petersen avoids addressing Woods accusation that Petersen’s system allows for positive rights to food (a positive right to food is the notion that an individual has the right to seize by force the food of another, or to forcefully conscript another person into producing food to then expropriate).
Here, one may pause and wonder just what quality and quantity of food to which Petersenite individuals have this right. Do Petersenites have a right to GMOs or against them? Is an individual entitled to a dozen eggs, or a baker’s dozen? Are the eggs sourced from a sustainable farm? Does the farmer have a right to a Living Wage? Petersen’s squishy thinking allows for quandaries like these that are as “innumerable” as he believes rights are.
Typical and expected of the Petersen-nihilist view, the answer to the question of “is (s)he right?” is always who knows. And the natural next question is who cares? In this way, Petersen encourages individuals to just stop thinking. Absorb literature. Compliment everyone. Appeal to nihilism and to nothingness. Wash and repeat. Understanding (Verstehen) is relegated to the dust bin. Why is anarcho-capitalism “stupid?” Because it’s wrong on rights. What is the correct view of rights? No one actually knows. Why does no one know? Because rights are innumerable. At this point, the individual who desires truth and consistency in their personal philosophy should be somewhat frustrated.
Libertarian political philosophy and natural rights appropriately defined have a snowflake’s chance in a Death Valley brick pizza oven in this system. An individual committed to truth and logic is obligated to reject it. A system that rejects understanding is not to be trusted. The flimsy, often whiny and arrogant, conclusions one may come to by thinking this way are easy demolished by the opposition. It is no surprise that the intellectual environment in the United States, as almost uniformly evidenced throughout society today, is dominated by collectivism. Proponents of individualism in the current time and in recent history have failed catastrophically. Perhaps the adoption of Petersen’s method of thinking is partly to blame.
Libertarians who listen to the Petersen interview (both regular Woods listeners and new ones) may feel a grudging discomfort at some of Petersen’s comments. The purpose thus far has been to provide a model for understanding the source of that discomfort, it’s nature, and it’s implications. Namely, Petersen has adopted a useless interpretation of the concept of rights that provides for a nihilistic worldview, rejection of the distinction between right and wrong, and meaningless (but voluminous) “loud and vociferous opinions” on current events and libertarian political philosophy. The conclusion above is that this system of thought–with it’s first error in misunderstanding rights–is weak and open to attack. The recommendation is to reject this libertarian-in-name-only system in favor of rigorous adherence to private property and natural rights, and application of these in the form of sound, logical deduction to practical issues and competing ideas. In this way, the great cloud of misunderstanding, incoherence, and meaninglessness that causes the grudging discomfort listeners may have felt (that Petersen promotes) may be successfully dispelled.
Part 2: Theory Applied
However, theoretical analysis is only half the job. Some practical and particular statements by Petersen must be reviewed. This will illustrate the theoretical problems detailed above.
Point two of Petersen’s five point list of why he isn’t an anarchist reads:
“If government is to exist, its number one job is to protect citizen’s liberties, and after that to protect their lives through a reasonable national defense that is not overly interventionist or burdensome on its taxpayers.
Citizens should absolutely be free to seek the means of self-defense, and should not be prohibited from exercising those means vigorously to defend their own lives, liberty, and property.”
Thus, individuals have the right to “defend their own … property,” yet other individuals who happen to be employed by the state (state-agents) also have a right to your property. But as individuals, state-agents have a right to defend their property. Alas, when non-state individuals and state-agents both choose simultaneously to exercise their right of ownership and defense of the same quantity of property, conflict is created. As readers of Hans Hoppe may understand: the whole purpose of law, of political philosophy, of libertarianism, of the Non-Aggression Principle–in other words, the whole reason for engaging in this field of inquiry in the first place!–is to eradicate conflict. And here’s Petersen, in plain black and white, calling for a system that creates it. If Petersen was ever truly a libertarian anarchist as he claims, it was not because of this unshakable understanding.
Point three is peppered with misconceptions. First, Petersen asks,
“If you believe in the non-aggression principle… who’s job is it to enforce it?”
… as if to imply that no one would enforce property rights in a stateless society (natural law society). To understand that this implication is patently false, one simply need reflect on the question of whether one values the enforcement of his or her property rights. If enforcement of one’s right is in fact desired, this is an entrepreneurial opportunity for the provision of property rights protection services by another individual or group of individuals (a company).
This same problem plagues economics. The application of the principles of the unhampered market, like the division of labor, specialization, the law of diminishing marginal utility, etc. are accepted and endorsed in many instances, only to be totally ignored or refused in others. Property rights protection services are a thing. They exist. There is no reason they would not exist in a natural law society. In fact, not only is it likely they would exist, but the product of the service–actual rights protection–would tend to be much better without the state.
Economists and libertarians alike sometimes shy away from this fact, but they shouldn’t. Property protection services in a free versus a hampered market can be analyzed just like the classic shoe production example. If we can theorize about a world in which shoes are produced by the state and only by the state, wherein individuals are subjected to violence or the threat of it in order to finance the state-production of shoes, and in which they may not seek to purchase shoes from any other shoe-maker in a given territory (again, under the threat of violent punishment), we can do it for protection services.
With shoes, it is obvious that consumers of shoes would all be much worse off in a system of state-production of shoes. Shoes would only come in one color (probably green to please politically-connected eco-terrorists who hate human flourishing). Shoe buyers would have to wait in a two hour line at the local state shoe office once a year (or more as determined by the regional shoe bureaucrat) to pay mandatory fees for shoes. Radicals who sought to secede by refusing to wear shoes would be branded terrorists and targeted by Hellfire missiles by drone strike. A black market in shoe production would emerge where private shoe-makers who dared to offer a product consumers actually wanted are hunted by thugs, who wear special boots reserved only for state police, since free individuals don’t “need” specialized shoes. No doubt, the price of shoes would skyrocket as these conditions only worsened.
This example is so heavily elaborated in order to press the point that the general consequences of expanding the scope of the state can be accurately predicted and ascertained. If shoe production is to be legitimately accepted within the scope of power of the state, shoe quality will worsen and its price will rise. The cost of rights protection in today’s society–if one can find any–is astronomical. What is laughably considered a justice system in the United States of America is nothing short of a catastrophic abomination. Involvement with a police officer, justice official, or court is often financially and personally devastating, whether one is the plaintiff or the defendant, and regardless of whether one is right in his or her accusations or defense, or not. That Petersen accepts the initial proposition that the state is a legitimate institution in the first place, that it should be tinkered with via meaningless “reforms” instead of outright abolished, is to toss the baby, to toss all the babies, right out with the bathwater.
Point four targets the Non-Aggression Principle:
“The non-aggression principle is a social contract, but there is zero obligation to live by it.”
The NAP is not a contract, much less a social one.
The NAP is an analytic device that individuals may employ in order to distinguish right (or just) behaviors from wrong (or unjust) behaviors. It does not specify actions to be taken in the future, by who, and under what conditions. This is the function of a contract. Clearly, government dictators around the world today do not abide by the NAP. The accusation that NAP proponents do not understand that government dictators around the world do not abide by the NAP is what’s “childish,” not the NAP itself. The purpose of the NAP is to apply it to the actions of the government dictator himself in order to analyze whether his actions consist of voluntary interactions with others or not, and thus to draw conclusions about the precise moral nature of these actions.
Petersen concludes that:
“[T]he non-aggression principle does not provide for the means of adequate self-defense. Not in national defense, or (sic) personal.”
What is the “adequate” level of self-defense? And if it exists, does it actually follow that a monopoly agency of violent aggression and conflict arbitration for a certain territory must be established in order to provide for it? Who cares about the defense of a nation? Shouldn’t the libertarian be concerned with defense of property?
There is no uniform “adequate” level of defense. Individuals, all with different ordinal rankings of preferences, value goods and services in likewise varying ways. Contrary to popular opinion in mainstream economics, these preferences may not be quantitatively valued, be it in terms of prices or utiles (pronounced YOU-ttles) or otherwise, in the first place. “The market won’t produce enough [insert particular service of interest]” is a verbal habit, a sort of impulsive Torette’s-like outcry that is literally meaningless.
Of course enough of the service will be provided in an unhampered market. Enough of the service will be produced up to the point that the last marginal consumer of the product just barely elects to choose to exchange some scarce resources for the service and not for something else. If more individuals would like to receive the service, but elect not to purchase for some specified reasons, then entrepreneurs devise methods and transform resources in order to offer the service desired and earn some profit (psychic or physical) for doing it. The same holds true for the production of defense services.
Petersen flies his true colors by alluding to national defense. The true libertarian couldn’t care less about the concept of this political unit called a nation. The only thing that needs defense, the only item individuals may justly defend in the libertarian system, is property (here one’s person is considered one’s property). Private defense firms can and do exist. Like shoes and legal services, a system of private defense would yield better property defense at lower costs for more people, just like with every desired enterprise in human history (note here that governments are exceptional at undesired enterprises, e.g. genocide, torture, murder, etc.).
In Point 5, Petersen conjectures that
“in an anarchist society, there is no commonly accepted definition” of private property.
Petersen does not take a position on whether in fact there is a knowable definition of property rights in the first place (which there is), choosing instead to predict that individuals would disagree on whatever it is, regardless. Some how, this is justification enough to endorse creating a violent agency with the power to legitimately expropriate property from otherwise peaceful individuals. Some how, justice is thrown out, because people would disagree on which stuff belongs to whom.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the most ridiculous ideas come at the end of the article.
Any individual can reflect upon, with rapidity, what he justly owns and does not own. Petersen’s nihilistic insistence that human beings are just too stupid to understand what they do own and what they don’t is falsified by this reality. Petersen himself probably has intuitive understanding that he owns the computer with which he runs his website. People who come into contact with Petersen while he works at his computer are probably able to discern to whom the computer belongs. Property and its boundaries are natural to human existence. Humans are naturally equipped with intellect that permits them to discern which scarce resources are owned by whom.
Petersen doesn’t agree. He thinks that “without a firm [government] definition of what constitutes private property, there can be no reliable transactions between parties” (comment added). In plain English, this means human beings are too dumb to understand what’s owned by whom and what isn’t, and that a government is required for people to understand the meaning of ownership.
First of all, governments are run by people. As Robert Higgs says, men are not angels. And angels don’t run for office. Thus, if Petersen is to maintain that government is needed to uphold the definition of property, he must explain what about government employment grants non-angel state-agents the requisite knowledge to know what rights really are, and he must justify why they get to give it good and hard to the rest of humanity. For now, Petersen requires his audience to believe that by virtue of working for the government, certain people are able to understand ownership and others just aren’t.
In fact, Petersen’s entire conception is backwards. It is because
“people are vile and corruptible, [that] the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.”
Thus the state is not the rights-defining key to successful “transactions between parties,” but rather the most immediate threat to them, and thus, to prosperity.
Furthermore, one who states that the unhampered market without a state would fail to provide for a commonly agreed upon conception of rights, because only a single monopoly entity can assure universal agreement on the meaning of concepts is engaging in a “performative contradiction.” Language consists of hundreds of thousands of nearly universally voluntarily agreed upon meanings. Varying placement of letters relative to other letters combine and relate independently accessible, ascertainable meaning. The reader of this article is engaged in proving this fact as he or she reads it. No government is needed to maintain uniform understanding of the concept of language, nor of the concept of rights.
Again, Petersen-nihilism prohibits one from reaching this understanding. For some unknown reason, free human beings are just incapable of doing some things (like providing legal services or knowing who owns what). But state-agents–the ruling class of the government–is, if not all-capable, at least more capable of providing the “adequate” level of certain goods and services that private enterprise cannot. Thus, humanity is both mysterious and unknowable, but also identifiable and understandable. Everything is and isn’t. One can have cake and eat it too.
This is not libertarian political philosophy.
Part 3: Method and Motivation
There is a current fashionable trend among some who speak about political philosophy, and even make their living doing so, to misrepresent libertarianism. Their ranks are many. Libertarianism broadly (and incorrectly) conceived is maintained by a slim minority of those who consider these issues. The sad truth is that there is an even smaller fraction of self-proclaimed libertarians who actually get it right. Thus, it is a matter of urgent importance that those who understand libertarianism properly, as an application of the NAP, challenge individuals like Austin Petersen.
The Left and the Right are ideological giants, but those who reject individualism are not limited to this binary. The purpose here has been to provide a model for analytic deconstruction of any type of collectivist thought, though special joy was taken in targeting a particular kind of collectivist: the Anti-Libertarian.