James Bruce’s Critique of My Consequentialist Libertarianism: Part I

Last week, James Bruce wrote a critique of several of my posts that argue for a consequentialist approach to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  In my view, welfare consequentialism – a more refined version of utilitarianism – provides the best case for the moderate libertarianism I embrace and justifies a special focus on the interests of the poor (based on the diminishing marginal utility of money).  In this and a second post, I will respond to Bruce’s main criticisms.

1.  Consequentialism and the Argument against Statism:  Bruce argues that a consequentialist justification for my libertarian/antistatist position does not work because it does not provide an argument against statism.  Bruce claims that consequentialism will only argue against statism if small government leads to good results for the people.  If not, it will not argue against statism.

Although this argument is often made, I don’t find it persuasive.  Yes, if freedom led to bad consequences for the people, consequentialism would not justify it.  But so what?  The main argument for freedom and libertarianism under a consequentialist approach is that freedom leads to good consequences.  Liberty produces wealth, knowledge, peace, and allows people to live their lives as they choose.  Statism largely does the opposite.  That is why I value liberty.

And that is why you should as well.  If freedom led to bad consequences – if the world were as Marxists often portrayed it, with capitalism leading to immiseration and communism leading to wealth, harmony, and personal realization – then following capitalism would be morally abhorrent.  The reason Marxists are wrong is not that liberty always overrides welfare, but that liberty leads to wealth and choice, and Marxism leads to tyranny and poverty.

2. Consequentialism and Freedom: Bruce next attempts to place consequentialists on the horns of a dilemma.  He says that freedom either always produces welfare or sometimes it does not.  If one argues it always produces welfare, then one is no longer making a consequentialist argument.  But if it does not always produce welfare, then the consequentialist must recognize that there is always a possibility that limitations on liberty would be beneficial, which would leave us in a problematic world for liberty.

But this dilemma is a false one, since there is an attractive, intermediate position: One can believe that the way the world is constituted results in freedom oriented institutions, to a dominant extent, leading to the best results.  Thus, one would expect that freedom would lead to good consequences and that statism would be rejected.

It is true that there may be limited cases where restraints on liberty might make sense, such as welfare or other benefits for the poor.  But that does not lead us all the way to statism.  Instead, it leads us to a view easily recognized as within the family of classical liberalism or moderate libertarianism.

3.  Consequentialism and Moral Rules: Bruce seems to believe that consequentialists must be open to all kinds of exceptions to moral and constitutional rules.  Following J.J.C. Smart, he argues that “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.”

While many philosophers agree with Bruce here, I think he is mistaken on the level of moral rules and on the level of constitutional provisions.  First, consider moral rules.  While Bruce invokes Smart’s consequentialism, that is not the sort I am defending.  As I have indicated before, I adopt the two level theory of R. M. Hare, which argues that ordinary people – because of bias, imperfect knowledge, coordination requirements, and other matters — do better by following rules that are learnable, can be followed, promote good consequences in general, but not on a case by case basis.  Hare adds that the need to to psychologically internalize these moral rules means that people should not be taught to break them even in situations where they might appear to produce desirable results.  Thus, the rules are much more categorical than Smart suggests.  We shouldn’t be “always open to any rule being broken by the specific utilitarian concerns of the moment.”