What does it mean to be a bleeding heart libertarian? Here is one answer: “To be a bleeding heart libertarian means to have a concern for the poor that, in content and intensity, equals that of traditional bleeding heart liberals.” Looked at this way, familiar normative disputes get reduced to (somewhat less familiar) empirical ones. Given a shared concern for the poor, which slate of institutions and policies best serves this common concern: the direct (big state) ones of the bleeding heart liberals or the indirect (small state) ones of the libertarians?
I think this answer is at once better and worse than it first seems. It is better because, like an ice cutter, it breaks up long-frozen conceptual seas. In doing so, it opens navigational paths for the development of genuinely new forms of libertarianism. Like bleeding heart liberals of the left, bleeding heart libertarians are indeed foundationally concerned for the poor. So far so good.
However this answer is also worse than it seems. The problem is that, in its eagerness to break the ice, this answer obscures a normative dispute that bleeding heart libertarians would do well to make central. Yes, to be a bleeding heart libertarian means to have a concern for the poor that is equal in intensity to that of the bleeding heart liberals. But the content of that bleeding heart libertarian concern is crucially different from that of bleeding heart liberals.
To be a bleeding heart libertarian means to be willing to take up a new research agenda. That agenda, it seems to me, has two parts. The first involves our developing a distinct and rival normative vision of what free societies owe the poor. The second invites us to consider new ways of defending core ideas of traditional libertarianism: most notably, the importance of private economic liberty. More soon on each of these points.