Bleeding Heart Libertarianism II: The Move to Utilitarianism

In my last post on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, I described how I have always been a Bleeding Heart type of Libertarian.  Today, I want to describe where I am now on this issue.

Somewhere along the line – I think it was in the early 1980s – I became convinced of a type of utilitarianism, namely welfare consequentialism.  I had been a Nozickian libertarian but became persuaded of consequentialism.  Much of the responsibility, I believe, must be assigned to Richard Epstein and Friedrich Hayek (even though Hayek claimed not to be a utilitarian).  It was easy, as a libertarian, to become a welfare consequentialist.  If libertarian institutions have the good effects that libertarians believe they do, then welfare consequentialism provides a strong basis for libertarianism.

Moreover, the weakness of the deontological cases for libertarianism – that they rely on intuitions about the primacy of certain rights that most people do not share – can now be avoided.  Libertarianism can now be justified on the basis of its consequences for the welfare of people.  These claims are largely factual claims (albeit difficult factual claims to establish).  Further, the counterarguments made about utilitarianism – that it requires people to do unjust things, like hanging an innocent man – also can be avoided.  Under the two level theory of utilitarianism developed by R. M. Hare, these counterarguments turn out to be mistaken, because such actions will not, in the real world, be welfare enhancing.

I recognize that most libertarians eschew a (strictly) consequentialist approach to normative matters.  But I suppose that is just another way that I differ from the dominant libertarian approach.

So how, then, does welfare consequentialism address the issues central to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism?  In particular, how should government institutions address the special needs of the poor under welfare consequentialism?

This is a complicated matter, but some points can be made.  The diminishing marginal utility of money provides a strong reason why the needs of the poor should be given strong consideration.  The benefits from spending on the poor are likely, other things being equal, to be greater than the benefits from spending on other people.

This might seem to suggest that welfare consequentialism justifies significant government redistribution.  But that conclusion is premature.  The benefits from the diminishing marginal utility of money must be balanced against a host of other costs from government redistribution.  To mention just some of these costs: (1) providing people with significant subsidies creates harmful incentive effects, (2) large welfare programs make it more difficult to allow significant immigration which would benefit even poorer people, (3) large government spending programs, once allowed, are generally used more to benefit politically powerful groups than the poor, and (4) a market oriented society, with a small government, tends to develop a vibrant sector of formal and informal organizations that promote charitable and other purposes that significantly benefit the poor.

Where does this analysis lead us?  It suggests to me that when deciding which government institutions are justified, we should make sure that we focus on the effects of the poor.  While we should be open to institutions that specially benefit the poor, we should recognize the strong limitations on our ability to actually improve their situation.

In my next post, I will try to get more specific and to show how these concerns lead to moderate libertarian or classical liberal results.

Reader Discussion

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on April 19, 2012 at 11:37:07 am

Professor Rappaport has fallen victim to the perquisites of academe, one of which is writing that which the average reader cannot understand.

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Hon. G. T. "Bud" Martin, PhD
on April 19, 2012 at 11:38:52 am

From the structure of your writing, you probably intend to speak to one of those limiting classes, such as in modern philosophy, who are addressing themselves only to one another. An indicator is the appearance of "Normative" in the midst of discourse. So, this comment is made at the risk of not having understood the "thinking" as opposed to statements of reasons for the thinking.

The general concerns that lead to rhetorical appropriation of “justice” (as has the appropriation of “Liberal” in the U S) focus on perceived defects in the way our present social order has spontaneously generated systems of distribution.

The system(s) of production evolved from acceleration in the specialization and division of labor, which rely on exchange (mostly commutative or reciprocal) for that production to contribute betterments and wealth to our evolving social order seem beyond reproach (pace Marx; super pace Engels).

The reactions to the effects of those perceived defects seem to assume that Eros, Caritas and Agave were all buried with the ancient marbles at Aphrodite on the Anatolian coast. Daily life destroys that assumption. Individual and group objectives are not formed exclusively by Maximum Utility of consumption or possession, or even by some concept of maximum betterments of the social order.

There is this seemingly endless and resurgent search for the “causes of poverty.” Poverty is not caused; poverty is. Betterments and advancements are caused. The impedances of the causes of betterments cause the continuance of poverty at all its relative levels, not defects in the spontaneously generated systems of distribution.

If we examine the causes of the betterments and advances in our social order, they have not been found in the uses of governmental functions and powers to enforce (or for that matter, to implement) care, consideration and cooperation among the members of our social order. Where those uses have been made, obligations are imposed which by extension become authoritarian.

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Richard Schweitzer
on April 19, 2012 at 18:04:30 pm

The problem with the social justice crusaders, as with the professional bleeding hearts is that, for them, it is always October in the pumpkin patch. That is, it is perpetually the case that the amount of goods to be distributed is fixed. If one person gets more, then another unavoidably gets less. Who did what when to enhance the yield is past history. The issue is always and solely "fairness" in distributing the harvest.

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on April 20, 2012 at 13:22:07 pm

No, the problem with the (even non-rhetorical) use of "Social Justice" is that the "advocates" (of performing obligations essential to "just" conduct through non-voluntary collective means) will not face up to the issue that they are calling for the imposition of obligations on some for the benefit of others.

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Richard Schweitzer
on May 03, 2012 at 00:30:57 am

Your (to my mind, over-simplistic) criticism of those who espouse "Social Justice" seems more self-serving than rationally-based. There are many people who believe in social justice who readily acknowledge that state-provided benefits for some necessarily come at a cost to others. The distinction, which you seem to neglect, is that some people feel that the deprivation of some for the benefit of others is justified. Indeed, a utilitarian approach, giving the diminishing marginal returns of money cited by the author, would suggest that taking some from those that have the most (and, thus, derive the least value from their "last dollar") and giving it to those who have the least (who would derive the most from their "last dollar") would likely increase net social utility and, thus, make for a more efficient state of the world. Admittedly, such redistribution often involves both transaction costs and is not narrowly tailored to ensure maximum utility, but that is a flaw of the nature of political decision-making as well as in accurate measurement of benefits rather than something inherent in the system of redistribution or its proponents.

The analysis that "Social justice" and awareness of the imposition of costs in exchange for benefits are mutually exclusive strikes me more as a libertarian dodge which fails to explain why those with the greatest ability to give should not be compelled to do so to give to those who would derive greater benefit. What you are advocating is not a true criticism of "Social justice" but of any sort of regulation or imposition on people that goes to others rather than to those things of benefit to all which are impractical on the individual level (e.g. defence, police, roads).

What is not clear to me is whether you are advancing a libertarian (though not utilitarian) position that poverty is somehow a function of government intervention and the elimination of such intervention will result (by direct or indirect means) will eliminate poverty or whether you are arguing that poverty cannot be eliminated and, since the alternative requires imposing limitations on others, those who cannot climb out of poverty on their own are destined to their lot in life. The former, in my mind, is unsupported by evidence and the latter would seem to show a serious lack of empathy for others, the hallmark of those blessed with advantage or opportunity, deserved or otherwise.

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Nigel Declan

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