June 1, 2015

Austin Petersen Misunderstands Ancapism, But is a Product of the Internet Anarchists

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Tom Woods today hosted Austin Petersen of The Libertarian Republic to have a “conversation” about Anarco-capitalism vs. minarchism. I’ve given my best shot at overcoming that problem here.

My view of the conversation was that Tom Woods was, characteristically, impressively nice to someone who I think he could have run circles around.

What I was thinking throughout the entire conversation though, was that 1) Petersen really misunderstands the foundation of Rothbardian libertarianism and 2) that I have for some time feared that the “internet anarchists,” (you know, those young chaps that sit on the computer all day just pretending like they’ve read Mises and self-describing themselves as “political philosophers.”) would give rise to reactionary anti-ancaps like Petersen who dissent from ancapism by calling it “childish,” among other things.  In other words, I agree with Petersen (it pains me to say those words), that the internet anarchists are depressingly childish and utopian, forgetting that part of the point of libertarianism is that we ought to work for ourselves, take up some real old fashioned responsibility, and contribute to the world around us, earning a living in return.  And yet, my problem with Petersen is that he confuses today’s internet warriors, who are reflective of youth culture in general, with the philosophy itself, as developed, painstakingly and with candid genius, by its chief proponents of the previous century.

I won’t go through the conversation in detail.

But after the second time of Petersen dismissing the Non-Aggression Principle as childish due to the fact that –get this — it aims at precision in a world that is fuzzy and moral clarity cannot be known, it dawned on me that Petersen himself, because he can’t get passed the internet crazies, is being a little bit childish. I mean, here’s a guy who is purportedly seeking to have a mature back-and-forth with one of the most unchildish advocates of the libertarian system today, Tom Woods, and he can’t even understand the basic definition of a right! The entire time, and Tom should have immediately got to the bottom of this, Petersen was speaking of rights as if the source of those rights was “society” or a document (like the Constitution) itself. Does he not realize that rights precede all social conventions?  Perhaps this comes from his self-described position as an atheist/skeptic, but did he not realize that even the agnostic Murray Rothbard had the sense, and the historical familiarity, to observe that rights, if indeed they can be considered universal and absolute (Petersen probably can’t agree to this), must come from outside the humans themselves?  Rights cannot be conventional, they must be “natural” (as opposed to artificial).

Woods calls Petersen out on some leftist arguments, which was nice; but the problem was that Petersen couldn’t see where Woods was coming from because he never occurred to him that rights are not something that are suddenly created at the initiation of a given social system.

Here’s another aggravation: Petersen, while talking of the issue of national security, attempts to draw Woods into a corner by stating that, well, Ron Paul after 9/11 suggested the use of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, but wasn’t that relying on the State? What has Woods to say to that?! Does Tom dare to say he disagrees with Ron Paul? The answer is so remarkably obvious that I was anticipating one of Woods’ wisecrack answers against Petersen’s childish (even if only for the reason that he thought he was making a serious point), challenge. The answer is, of course, that given that we currently live in a situation in which the Federal Government has monopolized all such solutions to international threats, we have no choice but to use it! At least it is Constitutional, not to mention better than the trillion-dollar wars.  Petersen’s objection is akin to saying: so if you oppose the Federal Reserve, why do you still use the Dollar?  Well gee Austin, I wonder why. We are talking about theory here, about what is ideal, not the pros and cons of State action in our current context.

At one point, while talking about Rothbard’s theory of children, Woods states that he dissents from Rothbard’s child theory at some points (as do I), and Petersen goes “uh oh Tom!” as if Tom was admitting he was coming over to Petersen’s side of things. But as Tom Woods responded, look, we are allowed to disagree with each other. We are allowed to have disagreements within the ranks. Libertarianism, as summarized by the NAP, has various distinctions in interpretations. And a healthy aspect of libertarianism that is! We aren’t cultists here (as much as Petersen would like to think us so).

Petersen rails on Woods and the anarcho-capitalists for not believing that crimes should be punished and rights should be enforced and laws should be drawn up. Now, he is right that these days there are many online ancaps who claim to agree with that, but why make the internet utopians the object of criticism while, if he had read Rothbard, Hoppe, Kinsella, Rockwell, Murphy, Woods, and so many others it would have been so blatantly obvious that they support the punishment of crime, the enforcement of laws by institutions, and the drawing up of laws?  But the frustration here is not only against Petersen, who doesn’t want to properly understand the Rothbardian tradition (much less properly represent it), but against the internet anarchists who have flooded social media and various forums who claim “we don’t need a law or enforcement of rights, for we are anarchists!”  Reason number one why I don’t call myself an anarchist (make sure you read this), but a Propertarian.  In other words, Petersen isn’t the only one who has failed to grasp the Rothbardian vision; those he opposes as “childish” have failed as well.

This is why the failure to be precise, as Woods (much to Petersen’s outrage) expressed, is so dangerous.  We need precision. We can’t glory in fuzzy thinking or obscurity in theory. We need to actually and accurately understand the issues, the vocabulary.  See this post for more on libertarianism, properly understood.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com