Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Utilitarianism, and Statism

Do bleeding heart libertarians have an argument against statism? My concern is that they do not. Take Mike Rappaport. He writes that “[1] I have always been a Bleeding Heart Libertarian who is concerned about the effects of liberty on the poor and … [2] I now base my political views on a utilitarian approach.” This post shows how (1) and (2), taken together, keeps one always open to (3) statism, which Rappaport says is “similar to other negative ‘isms’ like racism and sexism.” (I.e., it’s a bad, bad thing.)

Here’s the problem in a sentence: If (1) bleeding heart libertarianism acquires its moral standing from (2) utilitarianism, which relies on an account of human welfare in terms of pleasures and pains, then bleeding heart libertarianism has no principled argument against (3) statism; it has at best a pragmatic objection.

So we’re clear, Rappaport himself, in “Statism I,” defines statism and decries it. He is not a statist; he is against statism. Agreed.

But what argument can he give against it? I don’t think utilitarianism can give him the resources he needs.

That makes sense historically. Utilitarians have been uncertain allies: “Mill’s defense of democracy was much qualified,” Fred Wilson writes, in “John Stuart Mill.” Wilson continues,

Referring to the rule of Akbar in India, he allowed that despotic rule could be necessary under certain conditions for stable government. He even suggests that, since people must be properly fit if democracy is to function well, a despotic form of government, if well-run with this aim in mind, might prepare its people for the exercise of responsibilities of a free electorate.

What is missing from a utilitarian justification of bleeding heart libertarianism is the libertas (liberty) that gives the word its name. No wonder then that a bleeding heart libertarian is concerned about “the effects of liberty on the poor.” No wonder, too, that Mike Rapparport is “agnostic” about programs such as medicaid and welfare: “It is easy to imagine these programs creating problems, such as promoting out of wedlock births or disincentivising work, but one can also imagine such programs leading to net benefits. In the end, then, I am largely agnostic about these programs, viewing them as potentially beneficial if well designed and not overly generous.”

Statism, then, could be a great thing, if it increased utility. Take two nations: Free Nation A and Despotic Nation B. Free Nation A has basic freedoms enshrined in its constitution, but the people there—perhaps because of “the effects of liberty on the poor”—are ever so slightly less happy, as an aggregate, than the people in Despotic Nation B.

A bleeding heart libertarian has one of two options in this situation: (1) embrace Despotic Nation B as the better of the two or (2) say that such a hypothetical situation is per se impossible. If the bleeding heart libertarian embraces Despotic B, then statism is always an option—case proved.

However, if the bleeding heart libertarian says that the situation is per se impossible, then he must offer an explanation for why it is per se impossible. One explanation could be that it is prima facie impossible for humans to flourish without freedom. But such an appeal is not utilitarian. It is, instead, an appeal to human nature as such, independent from an aggregation of particular pleasures and pains, or it is a moral principle known intuitively apart from social utility.

Put another way, if Bentham is correct, then natural rights are nonsense on stilts. If J. S. Mill is correct, then rights are rules that are justified on utilitarian grounds. But here J. J. C. Smart’s “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism” comes into play: Ultimately, a consistent utilitarian must always be open to any rule being broken by the specific utilitarian concerns of the moment. If that’s the case, then even if—somehow—a bleeding heart libertarian can create a rule that justifies human freedom for human welfare, the rule—e.g., the First Amendment—must always be open to the general rule being broken in specific circumstances. But we most want protection for our freedoms against the state when there are strong reasons to deny us those freedoms.

But the threat is always there, and must be: Utilitarianism pursues, after all, a strategy of maximization. So the state can always appeal to the need to increase prosperity or decrease unemployment to pursue its social engineering. Free people can have an amount of prosperity with which they are comfortable, given the freedoms they have, even if they have less overall happiness than the city, county, or state desires for them. If utilitarianism is one’s justification for libertarianism, then the question is whether the state’s claims to social engineering are true. The question is not what it should be, that is, whether the state has a right to infringe on the private property of a free people. So, e.g., Kelo v. City of New London justifies taking for the purposes of improvement, that is, of increasing, or further maximizing, employment and city revenues through taxation. Libertarians are against Kelo, but why? Just because it is unworkable? If so, then there’s no principled objection to Kelo, just a pragmatic one.

Finally, if utilitarianism includes a broader concern than human welfare—which it does for many, most famously for Peter Singer—then state sponsored activities that are justified by environmental concerns will trump concerns for human freedoms. Tax the humans and bulldoze houses to keep the spotted owl alive!

Or, as Thomas Friedman says, become China for a day, to help the environment:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar.