'I Believe in Liberty': A Conversation with Austin Petersen
I had the pleasure of speaking with Austin Petersen, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri. You may remember him from his candidacy for the Libertarian Party nomination for president last year.
Petersen isn't what you immediately think of when you think of a Libertarian. He's thoughtful, engaging, and intelligent, and I believe he has a bright future ahead in politics. We had a terrific conversation, touching on issues like religious liberty and the right to life — and we talked about the future of small-l libertarianism. Here's my chat with Austin Petersen:
Chris Queen: What is your political background?
Austin Petersen: I started as volunteer in 2007 for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, where I mobilized 1,200 activists and raised $1 million for the campaign. That led to a job in Libertarian National Committee for a year, which led to a position with the Atlas Foundation, part of the Cato Institute.
At the Atlas Foundation, I worked on a project behind the scenes, which was to get Judge Andrew Napolitano a show on Fox Business Network. I served as a producer on the show, and when it was canceled after two years, I worked as director of production at Freedom Works.
After a year, I decided to stop preaching about capitalism and practice it, and I started a small business. I ran for president in 2016 and did well, coming in second at the Libertarian Party Convention. Now, I’ve decided to put my efforts into repealing and replacing Claire McCaskill.
CQ: How did your love of individual liberty come about?
AP: I’m originally from Independence, Missouri, and raised on horse farm Peculiar, which, believe it or not, is a short drive from a town called Liberty. Missouri’s motto is that it’s the “Show Me State,” and we’ve always been skeptical of big government.
I believe that the opportunity to advance liberty in my home state is a good one because I believe in liberty, libertarian values, self-ownership, and the individual. My attitude toward social issues is stay the hell out.
CQ: After your 2016 bid for the Libertarian Party nomination for the presidency, what prompted you to run for the Senate in Missouri?
AP: I saw that Claire was up for reelection, and I just wasn’t confident that a Republican candidate would reflect Missouri values. So I started polling my supporters, made 4,000 phone calls, and the overwhelming consensus was that I needed to run as a Republican.
CQ: Do you think Claire McCaskill is beatable in 2018? Why or why not?
AP: I do. I think she is. I recently read a poll that showed her losing by double digits to anyone, and I’m anyone. She’s bad on the issues that Missourians care about, she didn’t support Neil Gorsuch, and she did support Hillary Clinton.
CQ: Why do you think you’re the best person to beat her?
AP: A more traditional conservative Republican would have a hard time against her. I mean, look at the last election when a traditional conservative ran against her.
A liberty Republican can reach across the aisle. I can get Republican voters to choose me, but I’m not tied to the Republican political machine, so I can also reach out to independents. I’m better on issues like criminal justice reform, which is important because the justice system has been a big issue in places like Ferguson.
I plan to run with a platform of limited government and criminal justice reform and can get a lot of interest. And just like Ronald Reagan with Reagan Democrats, I plan to win over Petersen Democrats.
CQ: What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missourians (and Americans), and why do you think libertarian solutions are the best fit for them?
AP: Jobs — are there enough? Are regulations and confiscatory taxation getting in the way of businesses hiring more people? Is our healthcare system so broken that people need to stay at corporate jobs? As an ex-small business owner, I learned that my health provider is no longer providing insurance to individuals. Thanks to Obamacare, I went from having an affordable plan to an increasingly expensive one, and now I won’t have any insurance next year.
CQ: The Libertarian Party doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the minds of Americans. What sets you apart from most LP standard bearers?
AP: I’m pro-life. That’s a big issue to me. The Libertarian Party has historically couched the issue, but defending the rights of the unborn is important to me.
CQ: What sets you apart from most Republicans?
AP: That’s a tough one. Probably criminal justice reform and standing up for constitutionalism. The federal government has never had proper constitutional authority to regulate drugs. We need to end the war on drugs for the sake of federalism and constitutionalism, and because it’s an $80 billion boondoggle.
CQ: In the past, you’ve spoken a lot about religious liberty. Do you still see religious freedom as an important issue, and what makes it so important to you?
AP: I absolutely do. I’m agnostic, which means I don’t believe, but I’m open to being convinced. I have to be honest about who I am; it’s not right to be dishonest just to exert power over others.
I don’t like people being oppressed. I don’t think that a Christian baker should be forced to bake a cake or arrange flowers for a same sex wedding. I mean, I wouldn’t want to perform a ceremony I didn’t believe in, and that should be my right. At the same time, I don’t think a Muslim business owner should be forced to sell pork.
After all, Americans believe in private property rights, and religious freedom is the first thing mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Go back to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and you’ll see what became the Constitutional belief in freedom of religion. It’s one of the most important things to me, and I enjoy defending things that I don’t necessarily agree with.
CQ: You’re known for your pro-life stance. Do you think more Americans would take a look at the libertarian point of view if more libertarians were vocally pro-life?
AP: Libertarians would certainly be more electorally profitable with a pro-life stance, but they’re free to believe what they believe, and I can’t demand that they be less than true to their beliefs.
That’s part of why I feel more comfortable in the Republican Party. I wish I could convince more libertarians that there’s no liberty when there’s no life.
I look at it from a scientific viewpoint. If scientists discovered a clump of cells on Mars, it would be hailed as the discovery of life. Why can’t we apply that thinking to the unborn?
CQ: Do you think America is ripe for a libertarian movement? Why or why not?
AP: I don’t think so. We’re not quite there yet.
I was hoping the Tea Party would continue in ascendance, but it was taken over by the Republican establishment, lost its grassroots flavor, and became more populist, embracing ideas that didn’t have wide agreement.
The liberty movement is in more of a downswing, and that’s in part why I’m running, to put some gas in the tank. People who aren’t libertarian know me as intellectually honest and know where I stand.
I don’t want to be a squishy moderate like so many libertarians were in the last election. I want to be bold and brave and honest and truthful, because people respond to that.
That’s why people responded to Donald Trump, because whether you agree with him or not, he’s authentic and people believe that’s how he really is all the time.
CQ: How can more people get involved in a libertarian movement at the grassroots level, and how can we influence our representatives to act with liberty in mind?
AP: Well, politics is downstream from culture. There are lots of ways to get involved in campaigns, like volunteering and speaking up for ballot measures. But when it comes to culture, the liberals have terrific marketing, even if the Democratic party is down. Look at all the beautiful, wonderful films that tell lies.
For example, Che Guevara – how many movies do we see that portray him as a hero, when in reality he was a mass murderer? Where are the films about Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek? Why are there no documentaries lionizing our leaders, the ones who spearheaded ideas. I’d love to see documentaries about men like Adam Smith and John Locke. We need to change that.
If I’m not Missouri’s next senator, and I’m confident that I will be, I’d like to play a role in that change.
CQ: How can people get involved in your campaign?
AP: Of course, donations are always welcome, but we need volunteers as well. People can go to austinforsenate.com to donate or volunteer and be a part of preserving liberty and freedom – and helping me repeal and replace Claire McCaskill.