Libertarians ought to be in favor of redistribution. Especially ones with bleeding hearts.
Not redistribution by the state, to be sure. A state with the power to redistribute wealth is a state with the power to tyrannize. In addition, there’s no reason to trust the state not to use redistributive power to enrich the wealthy and well connected at everyone else’s expense—after all, despite what its press clippings might suggest, the state is not interested in ordinary people’s well being. Further, the knowledge that state might exercise redistributive power could introduce destabilizing uncertainty into the economy. Forcible redistribution by the state has the potential to reduce overall economic productivity. To a significant extent, it’s arbitrary: why should one group of recipients be chosen over another? And it obviously interferes with people’s autonomy.
But redistribution by the state is hardly the only conceivable kind. The kind libertarians ought to favor includes five elements:
1. The elimination of privilege. Existing market structures feature a broad range of privileges that shift resources into the pockets of the wealthy and well connected—while making and keeping others poor. Think occupational licensure, patents and copyrights, zoning laws and building codes, the use of eminent domain to benefit developers and their clients, transportation subsidies, and tariffs, just for starters. Ending these privileges would shift resources away from those who benefit from them and improve the economic positions of many poor and middle-class people.
2. The operation of a freed market. When privileges are absent, capitalization costs are lower, and more people can enter the market. The result is more enthusiastic competition—and, of course, the practical effect of competition is to reduce profit margins and to make it harder for people to preserve entrenched economic positions. Freeing the market is itself an act of revolutionary redistribution, because, as Jeremy Weiland emphasizes, the free market will “eat the rich.”
3. Acts of solidarity. Just because forcible redistribution by the state is problematic for multiple reasons doesn’t mean bleeding-heart libertarians should be anything but enthusiastic about wise acts of solidaristic redistribution—choices, that is, by people to share their resources benevolently with others. (Benevolence isn’t just the province of statists: among libertarians, it’s been defended even by neo-Objectivists like David Kelley and Tibor Machan.) When people give without compulsion by the state, their giving needn’t dampen their productivity. And they can ensure that it’s more effective than redistribution by the state, too. Solidaristic redistribution can be very effective as a response to accident, disaster, and ill fortune.
4. Radical rectification. The state engages in theft on a grand scale. Its cronies steal too, frequently with its blessing. Some obvious examples: the theft of land in Latin America from those who worked it—converted through violence from rightful owners to tenants and the use of eminent domain to take land from ordinary people in order to enrich the state’s corporate cronies. Land stolen in this way can and should be reclaimed by its rightful owners—without compensation to thieves.
5. Radical homesteading. Even when it doesn’t steal identifiable assets and pieces of real property from particular people, the state uses its power to take resources that don’t belong to it and to use stolen money to fund its own activities and those of its cronies. Consider, for instance, the arbitrary expropriation of vast tracts of land in colonial North America (and in the newly minted United States as well) by political authorities who proceeded to parcel it out to their cronies. Or think of the ways in which the state funnels huge sums of money to the military-industrial complex or to universities that maintain cozy relationships with the “defense” establishment. There are no specific, rightful owners of unjustly engrossed land and unjustly funded businesses or universities. But they can reasonably be regarded as unowned, and ripe for homesteading. These stolen assets should be redistributed by being claimed by ordinary people willing to occupy them, people whose just claims other should be quite willing to support.
Bleeding-heart libertarians have good reason not to favor redistribution when it’s carried out by the state. But they should favor redistribution that involves free acts by free people. Eradicating legal privileges, fostering the operation of liberated markets that disperse sedimented wealth, giving generously, supporting the return of stolen assets, and endorsing the homesteading of land and facilities unjustly claimed or funded by the state can all contribute to the rectification of injustice and the management of risk. These are all varieties of redistribution libertarians ought to embrace.