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Bleeding Heart Libertarianism V: Bryan Caplan’s Ideas

Over at our sister site, EconLog, the bloggers are discussing Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  Caplan notes with approval David Friedman’s criticism that the BHLs have not made clear the weight which they attach to the interests of the poor.   Caplan wonders whether BHLs are claiming for the poor “anything stronger than a utilitarian would accept?”  Caplan, however, does recognize that BHL “deserve credit for pointing out the many neglected ways that government hurts the truly poor.”

These two points by Caplan give me greater confidence in my consequentialist version of BHL.  I actually don’t like the term “social justice.”  And I find it, in some BHL discussions, to be poorly defined.  By contrast, I believe that consequentialism provides both a clear and defensible normative approach that explains why the poor should receive our special consideration – to an extent.

But Caplan’s other point – that a focus on how institutions may harm (or benefit) the poor – is important.  By attending to the interests of the poor, BHL can remind us and discover ways that institutions harm them.

Finally, I should note the common criticism that BHLs are merely just trying to appear more favorable to liberals or leftists.  I suppose in some cases that may be true, but not for me.  After decades of being accused of lacking that special enlightenment that many on the left believe they exclusively possess, I feel free not to worry about it.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the diminishing marginal utility of money can sometimes justify special benefits for the poor.

Reader Discussion

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on May 01, 2012 at 14:04:49 pm

“These two points by Caplan give me greater confidence in my consequentialist version of BHL. . . .
“I believe that consequentialism provides both a clear and defensible normative approach that explains why the poor should receive our special consideration – to an extent.”

At the risk of being read as an “ankle-biter,” that leads us to enquire whether those convictions relate to the “normative”* issues of Libertarianism; or, are they no more than an articulation of a philosophical justification of what “should” be (‘to an extent”) one of the conditions of human relations to be sought – implying [?] to be sought though our modes of governance (the functions and operative effects of governments)?

Consequentialism is a philosophical “argument.” Because it concerns judgments of actions on the basis of moral objectives to be sought, attempts to apply that philosophy to the determination of the functions and operative effects of governments is distinct from normative Libertarianism.

One might say that philosophical issue and Libertarianism are each concerned with “consequences” of the determinations of the functions and operative effects of governments; the consequentialists for what “ought” to be the consequences (and particularly how they are to be judged); and the Libertarians for consequences to be avoided (to the extent possible).

The determinations sought by a "consequentialist" would appear to require creating constructs for governance; that is, creating governmental functions and operative effects for specific moral objectives.

Normative Libertarianism does not encompass that course for attaining moral objectives. Further, the empirical evidence is not yet available to support a consequentialist “approach” to the functions of governments.
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*Normative: adj.
Establishing, relating to, or deriving from, a standard or norm, especially of behavior. OED

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Richard Schweitzer
on May 03, 2012 at 10:41:47 am

"David Friedman’s criticism that the BHLs have not made clear the weight which they attach to the interests of the poor. "

I am somewhat symapthetic to this point, as this is one of the variables that makes appeal to 'social justice' really murky and maybe even downright subjective.

But the way I see it, such is the entire world of political theory! I am not sure what is expected: maybe an iron clad mathematical formula where precise weights are established for each variable, so that all we need to do to determine policy is engage in some calculus? I don't want to sound flippant, but criticisms like this kind of make me wonder whether that is what is expected?

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Kevin Currie-Knight

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