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.