The Associate Producer of the FOX Business show Freedom Watch and a powerful advocate for liberty, Austin Petersen, told a raucous crowd at the Porcupine Festival in Lancaster, New Hampshire that he believes the proliferation of conspiracy theories within the ranks of the Liberty Movement might be damaging the movement’s potential. Petersen believes liberty activists are marginalizing themselves by giving naysayers an easy bogeyman. If prominent Libertarians can be painted as paranoid nuts that rely on loose associations and black/white thinking, the entire movement can be rejected as conspiratorial.
This is a critical issue as the Ron Paul Revolution tries to find its legs as a social movement going forward. Will it remain a mainstream reform movement that is grounded in solid intellectual argument or will it become a fringe fad that dies on the vine because it fails to garner broad appeal? Petersen argued persuasively that the tendency of some in the Liberty Movement to gravitate to conspiratorial thinking will relegate the entire movement to permanent fringe status.
Petersen defined conspiracy theory this way:
The term conspiracy theory is used to indicate a narrative genre that includes a broad selection of (not necessarily related) arguments for the existence of grand conspiracies. The term is frequently used to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at stealing power, money, or freedom, from the people. Conspiracy theories are based on the notion that complex plots are put into motion by powerful hidden forces.
Petersen added the following provocative statement about the damage he believes has been done by so-called 911Truthers connected to the Liberty Movement:
911 Truthers have twisted the phrase in such a way as to destroy its (preferred) meaning, which is that the federal government covered up its massive neglect of the American people. And now because of it, our ideological enemies, the statists, can paint us all with a broad brush and destroy any opportunity for true justice, and in so doing expand government power. After all, why should Americans trust a libertarian movement with governance when it is so easy for the government to show how the liberty movement is densely populated with paranoia and irrationality? It is similar to how the left delegitimized the tea party by focusing on the unsavory elements while ignoring their very legitimate complaints of the dangers of big government.
Libertarians may be predisposed to conspiracy thinking because they are known for their open-mindedness. Free thinking goes with the territory. Libertarians are also known for their ability to challenge the conservative-liberal status quo, which places them in no-man’s land, politically speaking. Consequently, Libertarians often feel like victims of the dominant power structure, that does not appreciate them. The result is alienation. Finally, since Libertarians have little trust in central government, they frequently find themselves at odds with the civil structure around them, thus they are in an insecure position in relationship to the community at large.
Many Libertarians live their lives in an “anti” position with respect to authority. They tend to trust their closest friends and a select few enlightened apostles of libertarian theory, but they believe practically everyone else is wrong because they have had too little access to the correct information. This dynamic is a set-up for closed group/us vs. them thinking, the key ingredients for conspiracy thinking.
This tendency to embrace alternative realities has been increased by libertarian Icon Ron Paul because he has turned much of conventional wisdom about government and culture on its head. Paul’s iconoclastic thinking (not iconoclastic for true blue classical liberals) has opened the door to alternative realities that were unrealized or unspoken in polite company just a short time ago. In particular, Dr. Paul’s ability to expose the Federal Reserve System as a large fraud on the American people has opened many eyes to the fact that things truly may not be what they appear to be. If the FED could be a massive Keynesian hoax, then perhaps a lot of other things are fraudulent? Thus, everything is open for increased skepticism. Because their minds were opened to this phenomenon that turned out to be true, Ron Paul acolytes may be more susceptible than average citizens to buy into other theories that might have little basis in reality.
Petersen believes conspiracy theorists rely on logical fallacies and confirmation bias. Logical fallacies are errors in logical reasoning. One such logical fallacy is the confusion between causality and correlation. Confirmation bias is a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and search for what confirms one’s beliefs and to ignore, not seek, or undervalue information that contradicts ones beliefs. All of us use these cognitive tricks from time to time but conspiracy proponents may use them more than other people.
When Petersen was a reporter at FOX News he claims to have investigated many popular conspiracies only to discover that most of them turned out to be blatantly false. Among those theories Petersen claims to have investigated and disproven are the FEMA camps controversy, the 911 conspiracy, the Autism vaccine controversy, the chemtrails theory, and various other false flag conspiracies, all of which are popular in some libertarian circles.
Petersen went on to say that he believes some conspiracy theories are harmful. One such example of a harmful theory is the claim that an evil conspiracy of Jewish bankers are attempting to manipulate money and credit to their own benefit. Petersen spoke about this issue in stark terms:
Engaging in this type of backwards thinking can lead not only to madness, but to murder. For if you feed poison into a brain on the brink, you bear some moral responsibility for the violent actions taken by the sick and deranged. And how will you respond when some madman commits a crime thinking he’s saving the world from some evil conspiracy of Jews? Or when a polio or measles outbreak occurs and kills children? Sure some may say they don’t condone racism or anti-Semitism, but there are plenty who are openly racist. We must guard ourselves against and repudiate these anti-libertarian philosophies of darkness that would overcome us and divert us from the task of advancing our common principles of liberty. I argue that these principles of liberty are grounded in reason and logic. They contain a respect for science, evolution, and an understanding of spontaneous order.
Petersen is in a position of influence within the liberty community, and thus his words are powerful. Many other leaders in the liberty community agree with Petersen that the Liberty Movement cannot move forward if it does not rid itself of its conspiracy theorists and related conspiracy hustlers.
What Petersen did not say but is undoubtedly also true, is that there is big money in conspiracy. People are more apt to tune into hyped up controversies that are promoted by convincing hucksters trying to make a buck. The liberty community unfortunately has its share of these bombastic media hucksters. People are also more apt to donate to enterprises that are “in the know” while everyone else is in the dark. We tend to want to support people that think like us. As importantly, fearful people are more vigilant and tend to donate more because they experience the need to be protected. Thus, fearful people are easily exploited.
Austin Petersen is a courageous individual who appears to be willing to take a temporary career risk by contrasting himself with one prominent element within the liberty community. By acting with intellectual rigor and integrity, Petersen may be saving the liberty community from itself.
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Kevin Kervick is a Republican candidate for State Representative in Portsmouth, New Hampshire District 30.