Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

Over at Cato Unbound this month, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a piece exploring what they term Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  (Matt founded an excellent blog entitled Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  John has a new book out entitled Free Market Fairness.)

To get a sense of what Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is, Matt described the common core of the bloggers at the Bleeding Heart Libertarianism blog as follows:

What we have in common on this blog is an appreciation for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty.  But we appreciate those things, in large part, because of the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods.

One way to describe this is that Bleeding Heart Libertarians believe in both freedom and social justice.

I am very enthusiastic about this new blog and new movement within libertarianism because I have always been a Bleeding Heart Libertarian.  I think part of the reason is that I came to libertarianism from the left and thus a concern for the poor always seemed like a compelling value to me.

Even in my most libertarian period – my Nozickian phase during the late 1970s – I was always trying to come up with arguments for why strict libertarian rights required special benefits for the poor.  The rectification portion of Nozick’s theory of justice struck me as being very significant.  Perhaps I can post about some of these ideas in the future.

In the 1980s, I wrote an article arguing for a system of private unemployment insurance rather than government unemployment insurance.  In making this argument, I compared the two systems based on a broad range of values – on efficiency, distributive fairness, free choice, worker responsibility and security – and concluded that private unemployment insurance would be superior.  Distributive fairness was an important part of the analysis.

At that time, I also defended the view that, under the Rawlsian principles, classical liberalism was the best political system.  I had picked up that argument from James Buchanan, who I believe was the first person to argue this, doing so in an article in 1970s.

These proto-BHL ideas are now within the core of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  In the 1990s, Daniel Shapiro, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarian bloggers, wrote an article entitled “Why Rawlsian Liberals Should Support Free-Market Capitalism.”

Daniel Shapiro has also written a book, “Is the Welfare State Justified,” which adopts a similar methodology to my private unemployment insurance article.  In a sophisticated philosophical treatment, he compares private and government insurance on a variety of values, and concludes that private insurance is superior.

Thus, I am very happy to see that libertarianism is branching out.  I suppose that some libertarians will see these developments as weakening libertarian principles, but I am not one of them.  As Matts says, “libertarianism . . . is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.”

In my next post on this subject, I hope to address how a concern for the poor and for liberty can be incorporated into a coherent philosophical system.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 16, 2012 at 12:09:51 pm

What we are observing (I think) is a revival of the considerations expressed in Karl Polanyi's "The Great Transformation;" as well as some of the elements Walter Lippmann dealt with in "The Good Society."

The division (specialization) of labor (that replaced self-sufficiency and inter-personal transactions) necessarily generated systems of exchange that expanded or "evolved" into "market" systems of ever expanding impersonal and disinterested transaction structures. For long periods of monetary and political (balance of powers) stability those market systems were thought or expected to be "self-regulating" (which investigations reveal they have never been totally so).
Still, that was the distribution system evolved as the social order adapted (almost completely) to division of labor. However, the other segments making up the social order have not evolved (through social innovation or otherwise) or adjusted to provide spontaneous forms of distribution or access to goods and services produced by the division of labor.

The reactions to the lag in social order adaptations have led to criticisms of, calls for replacement of, control of, the market systems that evolved from about 1730 on.

From about 1907 on we have observed the attempts of collectivist replacements for distribution, principally via governments, even to the extent of totalitarian systems and ultimate militarization, none of which reactions has been based on dealing with the lag in adaptations within the organization of the social order (e.g., direct, civil, "social responsibility" and voluntary associations, etc).

References to "social justice" (subject to Hayek's question) are usually intended to imply corrections to perceived defects of the markets systems (as note above). If, instead, we conceive of "justice" as the performance of obligations, then social justice would become the performance of obligations through "social" instrumentalities, rather than individually or even through civil voluntary means. That infers governmental actions for the performance of obligations; and in so doing the assigning, allocation and imposition of obligations (usually through taxation, occassionally by regulation) on the basis of poltically determined criteria.

The politically determined imposition of obligations, at any level, not voluntarily undertaken, raises serious issues as to the viablity of the social order; and certainly as to individual "freedom from."

read full comment
Image of Richard Schweitzer
Richard Schweitzer
on April 17, 2012 at 01:00:03 am

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism may prove to be as mistaken as compassionate conservatism. The term "social justice" implies that ordinary justice is not good enough. Libertarianism is already just, as conservatism is already compassionate. The new adjectives attached to them imply that some apology or excuse must be made for a philosophy of individual freedom. The likely result of widespread acceptance of these pernicious ideas will be less freedom and less justice.

read full comment
Image of TeeJaw
on May 01, 2012 at 06:56:55 am

what we've got I meant the mess we've got in Washington DC + the will of the people. For explmae, I believe the Federal Reserve system is enemy #1 when it comes to getting the US on the right track, but abolishing it would require some wrangling in DC, and if the will of the people doesn't demand its demise, then even if one were capable of abolishing it, it would just be a short matter of time before we had Federal Reserve II.My point is that we've got the current situation, and we have our ideals. We may reach our ideals some day, but what can be done today? What can be done in the next two years, four, eight, etc.? If we try to reach all our ideals in one day, it won't happen, therefore it's necessary to prioritize and then come up with plans based on what is most important, and what is feasible, while never losing focus on the ultimate goal.I think a good explmae of the Founders acting based what was realistically possible is the issue of slavery. Although many of them wanted to abolish it entirely, they realized that if they pushed for that goal then the Constitution and creation of the United States would fail. But they knew that if they established the United States, that slavery would ultimately be abolished (although they probably didn't anticipate that over a million lives would be wiped out in the process).

read full comment
Image of Lerato
on May 01, 2012 at 07:24:22 am

But of course. And I think you'll find that gnivig from the heart is at remarkable lows in countries where the tax rate is increasingly raised. One might even posit that the relationship between the two in inversely proportional, though I haven't done the research.What IF our Government didn't take so much of our money? Imagine what could be done, on a local level, when givers take the time to KNOW where their money is going. Certainly our churches and non-profits could do a better job of fostering a culture where gnivig is highly important, but the American people are already the most gnivig givers in the world per capita.This argument that we need to leverage the mighty resources of the Federal Government in order to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (which is a group of drastically different magnitude depending on who you ask) is based on a whole slew of false premises. One of the biggest, I would say, is that it's possible for the Government to be charitable on our behalf. At the very least, this ignores our politicians' desire for re-election.Reply

read full comment
Image of Zaib
on May 01, 2012 at 21:57:35 pm

Right on Kev,The government canont love, but it really canont dispense justice either (it can as it comes to keeping the peace but not in terms of social justice ). The reason the government canont truly be socially just is that it operates out of coercion. An entity that forces others to give money so that it can give to other things is not a loving organization like a church or non-profit is. Taxes are coercion. The government coerces us to give money (if we don't we go to jail), coerces us into giving the right amount, and tells us that is knows how to dispense love and justice more appropriately than we do.Neither love or justice scale. But that's the argument I hear: Well the government has so many more resources than do non-profits or churches so it should do these things. Hmmmm, but what if the government didn't coerce everyone into giving it all the resources?DaveReply

read full comment
Image of Yogesh
on May 01, 2012 at 22:15:44 pm

As near I can tell, there are different gerads of libertarians. There are the limited government libertarians or pragmatic libertarians who advocate a smaller government and moving in the direction of libertarian ideals, and then there are the anarcho-capitalist libertarians who believe the ideal is to not have any government at all (anarchy), and that the Constitution grants too much power to a central organization.I tend to fall into the camp of All this libertarian stuff is great, but what can we realistically accomplish with what we've got? I'm not sure if there's a book that directly addresses the Constitution and libertarianism, but if I read one I'll let you know. For the time being, I highly recommend this book, more than any other on this website so far.

read full comment
Image of Dakalo
on May 03, 2012 at 23:53:04 pm

Chris,I would suggest sevreal factors. Many libertarians don't believe in it. They don't even have a problem with government fiat money implemented with a Friedmanite discipline.It may be unworkable in a world of fiat money on a single country basis.They would rather competition in currencies, free money if you will. I also submit both of your answers are correct as well. Many more important dragons to slay anyway being the logic now that inflation is seen as problematic by central banks again.

read full comment
Image of Zareef
on June 09, 2012 at 04:39:27 am

I have decided to write a reply essay. If any wants to read it it suhlod be ready by the end of the week.Scott, I concur.Caskman, your argument is as flawed as CT's. But given the experience of your comments on my now closed blog I am not surprised. In fact I expected as much.Government is not a rightful owner. They are an owner only by initiation of force. My essay will clarify this and other points made. DS's replies were a good start but he needed to say more and my essay will do just that.I am reading her The Art of Non-Fiction (and Atlas Shrugged) so I am sure I will be able to do a good job of that. (Note: I also just finished Philosophy: Who Needs It (answer: everyone), but this isn't directly useful to my own writing beyond the usual help that reading gives writers, i.e., help with grammar and spelling).Furthermore, those aren't axioms. The axioms (irreducible primaries) are (in order): Existence, Consciousness, and Identity). non-aggression and property rights are not axioms as they are not irreducible. They can be reduced to the our nature (identity) and existence.You didn't notice an element of concept-stealing going on?Using the concept of ownership to rule out the concept of ownership?I noticed that. That is going to be much the point of my essay.

read full comment
Image of Mike
on June 09, 2012 at 06:12:01 am

"If individuals caonnt act as they wish with their bodies and property, limited by respecting the same in others, it is not a libertarian world."Sure, but isn't that the point that CT is making? That we should respect the property rights of the true 'owner' and abide by whatever rules they set? And additionally that the property owner has the right to defend their property against agression/tresspass by those breaking the rules? Whatever your feelings on govt may be, in the context of Tans argument the owner is legitimately setting and enforcing the rules under which we gain access to their property.So I don't think the non-agression/property right axioms are in doubt here. The important point here (imo) is to discredit his claim that the state is the rightful owner of all property. The state may make that claim but unless that claim is legitimate then the supposed protection of the owner's (monarch's) property afforded by govt degenerates into the *initiation* of aggression that libertarians generally claim.I find it highly dubious that any monarch, and it's agent of 'govt', could claim to have legitimately negotiated the ownership of the land from previously recognised rightful owners. To fail to do so renders their current ownership claim equally illegitimate.

read full comment
Image of Mustapha
on June 09, 2012 at 11:53:09 am

why."Government is not a rightful owner."I didn't say it was. I said that *in the cotexnt of CTs original scenario*, the govt was the agency of the supposed legitimate owner of the property and therefore able to police the rules that are agreed by whatever mechanism is authorised by the property owner. Whether that owner is legitimate or not is where I think the argument must lie if we are to suggest a reasonable response as PC suggested.I don't think the current monarch has any legitimate claim in that respect btw since, as you say, the property was acquired by force.

read full comment
Image of Carolina
on June 09, 2012 at 14:41:50 pm

The state is free to set the rules - when you have the monopoly of inslttutionaiised legitimised violence - you can always do what you wish.If individuals cannot act as they wish with their bodies and property, limited by respecting the same in others, it is not a libertarian world.Government is an institution of violence, which can only be legitimate when it is acting in defence of those it represents. That defence is against outside attack or by citizens who attack fellow citizens.

read full comment
Image of Natty

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.