Missouri Senate candidate and libertarian activist Austin Petersen joins Merion West to discuss trade, immigration and his decision to run for Senate as a Republican.
Austin Petersen, who recently declared his candidacy for the 2018 United States Senate race in Missouri, joined Merion West’s Nikhil Sridhar for an interview on July 10th.
Nikhil Sridhar: You went from someone who was studying musical theater to a volunteer on the Ron Paul campaign to the founder of the publication The Libertarian Republic. Soon after, you were finishing second place in the Libertarian Party presidential primaries. Can you tell us a bit about this journey?
Austin Petersen: I didn’t go to law school. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I wasn’t planning in my life to try and lord over everyone. A lot of times you see these politicians, and it’s like they’re climbing the ladder from one position to the next just trying to get power. I never sought power because I just wanted to live my life and chase my dreams.
I was in New York City doing some media work, and I was certainly enjoying my career in the arts and media. But I noticed that as my career started to pick up and my income started to pick up—so did my tax bills. So I paid attention to the Republican debates at the time. This would have been around 2007; I watched Congressman Ron Paul in the debates, and I realized how that man exemplified what I stood for and everything I believed. So I started to volunteer for Ron Paul, and then it was all downhill from there you might say.
I got caught up in his movement and began engaging in activism. I had come to find out most people have trouble getting jobs in politics because they have degrees in law or political science. There were very few people who have creative backgrounds, who can communicate using the media. So it actually was something that I was very good at. My preferred candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 was Senator Rand Paul and when I saw that it was unlikely that he would be able to pull off a victory, I decided to run because I thought Governor Johnson and the Libertarian Party needed some more competition. A more interesting primary would bring greater attention to libertarian ideas.
In that sense I think I was successful. I may not have won the nomination. But it’s always exciting when your first political campaign is a presidential one, and I saw quite a few victories along the way.
Nikhil: I was on your website, looking at your policy stances. One issue that was omitted was immigration. Immigration was a contentious issue in the 2016 Presidential election; for many voters it was the single most important issue. As Senator, what kind of immigration policy would you advance?
Austin: I believe that a free market in labor is just as effective in creating prosperity as a free market in commodities. Now Milton Friedman argued that you can’t have open borders in a welfare state; if that’s true, then the welfare state is the problem.
In some ways, many of the immigration proposals that have come forth are temporary Band-Aids. Much of the problem comes from student visas. The issue, of course, is that you have people who come to the United States, and they seek an education in American universities. Many of those universities are publicly subsidized. What happens is we train the best and the brightest minds, but, after they’ve gotten their education, we force them to leave. We spend all of this money educating people, and then we send them home.
There has to be some form of meritocracy, so we can capture many of the best and brightest young minds at American universities. If we have a problem, the problem is the welfare state. Certainly, my ancestors were immigrants. They came through Ellis Island, which actually was a very strenuous test. They had to go through a strict security check, a strict disease check, and then they could be admitted. At the moment, what’s happening is the incentives are such that we are incentivizing illegal immigration. We need to disincentivize it. We need to incentivize people to obey the law.
Nikhil: So would a Senator Petersen vote for an amnesty bill?
Austin: It depends on the bill. I can’t say yes or no definitively because it’s all speculation. Some amnesty bill may have an amendment in it that requires you to house and clothe illegal immigrants. I can’t say yes or no, but you know Ronald Reagan passed an enormous amnesty bill. It was interesting because in the 1980 debates between George Bush and Ronald Reagan, both candidates were clamoring over who was going to be more generous to immigrants.
So I think in some sense, because of the problems we have in our economy, it becomes very easy to demonize those who are seeking a better life. But the truth is: If we are the greatest country in the world—and I really believe that we are—then people are going to want to immigrate here, and we need to make a simple path to citizenship.
Nikhil: Much like immigration, trade was also a hotly debated issue this past election cycle. You’ve said before that you believe in the free movement of goods and services across borders. What do you say to the man working nine-to-five at the Ford factory in Kansas City, Missouri, whose job may be on the line because you want free trade?
Austin: I’ll say this: I’ve directly helped him have a job because I purchase Ford F-150s for myself. I buy local, and I buy American. I do that as a way to support my local economy, and this is what I would encourage Americans to do. I’m willing to pay a little bit more for an American-made vehicle because that’s what I believe in.
However, I am not going to talk down to someone, who is poorer than I am, and require him to pay more to buy American. We all benefit from cheaper goods and services, so I think it’s very elitist for us to say we’re going to make your decisions for you—as if to say that you don’t know how to handle your finances better than I can for you.
I mean, I love Walmart. It’s an American company. It buys a lot of cheap foreign goods, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m not a rich man. I make a moderate salary from myself and my business, and I go to Walmart because that’s where it’s least expensive. People ought to have the freedom to trade. That’s what America is all about: that the government can’t tell me who I can or can’t buy from.
Nikhil: As a libertarian Republican, many of your policy goals do not fall in line with either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Examples include ending the War on Drugs and ending mass surveillance. How would you plan on advancing these causes potentially as a Senator?
Austin: What’s right isn’t always what’s popular, and what’s popular isn’t always what’s right. If you change what you believe in just to get elected, you lose twice. At the end of the day, if you lose the election and you change what you believe in, you brought nothing to your cause and what you believe in. So I’m not willing to do that. I may have lost the Libertarian Party’s nomination, but I was able to champion what I believe.
Libertarians in the Libertarian Party didn’t support me in many ways because they didn’t believe that some of my policies were quite libertarian enough. They didn’t like the fact that I am pro-life, for example. There is no one party that could possibly encompass someone’s entire philosophy.
I’m running as myself, and I will stay true to what I believe in no matter the letter after my name. I’ll tell you this: from an electoral tactics perspective, you cannot win in Missouri. You could win every single Republican vote and still lose the election. If you cannot penetrate into some of these blue districts, then you’re not going to win.
I think that a libertarian Republican is someone who has crossover appeal and can speak to citizens in our inner cities and bring up issues important to them that may be out of step with the Republican Party. Someone who came up to me during my Fourth of July announcement of my candidacy was a local Republican, and he said that he was going to vote for me. He said he was voting for me because I can win. Normally I say vote for what you believe in, but he said “Well I don’t agree with everything, but I think you can beat Claire.” The reason why is because I check off a lot of boxes for a lot of different people. There is something in this message for everyone. Ron Paul said it: the liberty message unites us; it doesn’t divide us. The liberty message has something for every single American.
Nikhil: Speaking of the Missouri electorate, these are people who voted for Donald Trump, both in the Republican primary and in the general election. You and President Trump are ideologically quite far apart. That being said, where can you find common ground with the President?
Austin: Good question. Regulatory reform. The President has put forward executive orders demanding that the executive agencies report to him in 90 days areas where they can cut down on waste, fraud and abuse. I totally agree with the President on that. The President has also recently called for a full repeal of Obamacare. He tweeted it once, and he said it publicly the second time. I think he’s been listening to Senator Rand Paul, which is very exciting to me. I think it’s a mistake to assume that the President has an ideology or a philosophy. I think that trying to pin him down in an ideological sense is probably a mistake. When you look at many of his policy proposals, I would say that a small majority of the time, I do agree with him. I’ll find areas to work with him where I believe. When we disagree, I will stay the course vocally. Of course, the Senate is a co-equal branch. We don’t serve the President; we serve the people. We are there to be a co-equal branch of the government and ensure the separation of powers.
Nikhil: Would you like to respond to Libertarian Party Vice Chair Arvin Vohra’s comments on you “not being a real libertarian?” since you left the Libertarian Party to run as a Republican. After all, the Libertarian Party’s members comprise a significant portion of your following. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?
Austin: I called 4,000 people, and I would have called more, if I had the time. 98% of those people, including registered Libertarians, said to run as a Republican. They weren’t saying this out of spite. They were doing it because they want liberty. The Libertarian Party has a catchphrase they like to use: “Liberty in our lifetime.” They want to work towards liberty in our lifetime.
I’m a little bit more impatient. I say, no, forget that. Liberty by sunset. For some of these libertarians, they are more content being a part of an echo chamber. In some ways, they don’t want to exercise power because they tend to be on the anarchist side of the spectrum, and I understand that. But I am a Constitutionalist and a minarchist, and I believe in limited government. I am willing to exercise appropriate authority in defense of liberty, which is the proper role of government. My favorite boss I’ve ever worked for, Judge Napolitano used to say: “If a dog barks at you, do you bark back?”
Nikhil: Thank you for your time today, Mr. Petersen. Best of luck.
Austin: Thank you.