Social Justice, Libertarianism

A Research Agenda for Bleeding Heart Libertarians

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.

Published on:
Author: John Tomasi
  • Damien RS

    I thought Carl Milsted had some interesting ideas along these lines.
    (and for context, since he only has Next links, not Previous links)

    • Damien RS

      His site is rather sprawling, but to boil it down massively, I think it comes to a land value tax redistributed as citizen’s dividend or basic income.  Or generalized, a natural resources tax, including airwaves, carbon and other pollution, maybe minerals.  Maybe even flatter income or sales taxes with large prebates (the dividend). 

      I note this, plus one of universal basic capital, is a set of fairly common ideas among those who want to combine liberty with equality or concern.  Thomas Paine, for example.  Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, Charles Murray’s “the Plan”, Henry George land tax… Wikipedia claims Hayek supporting a minimum income (and I know he defended social insurance)

      So I guess one thing for your research program is to decide if you’re likely to reinvent the wheel, or if you’re specifically trying to be “more libertarian” than redistributed natural resources tax.

      • Nicolas Bas

        Hayek is indeed defending a minimum income in the Consitution of Liberty, The Road to Serfdom and Law, Legislation and Liberty. It is rather unclear whether he supports that idea for everyone or for the widows, poor, disabled and sick. I am writing my bachelor’s thesis on it. The title is: A Classical Liberal Defense of The Universal Basic Income from a Hayekian Perspective. The first chapter of my thesis is on the difference between Paine’s and Locke’s conception of property. I believe, and argue, that as a classical liberal, you cannot defend Paine’s view on property because the whole idea of redress is based on wrong assumptions about the earth as a common property or the missed opportunity for others to acquire wealth because there are already property owners.

        • Damien RS

          I’m not sure that the “earth is common property” is a factual assumption that can be incorrect, instead of a moral assumption that is either endorsed or rejected.

          Paine had good company, BTW, like Locke ( addressed in older posts here), Jefferson, and Franklin.  I especially like Franklin’s lines.  The common idea that the Founding Fathers were strong libertarians seems rather laughable to me now.
 for some quotes.

          • Nicolas Bas

            I would argue that Locke and Paine are opposed to each other when it comes to their views on property because Paine says that the earth is common property of man whereas Locke says that the earth is given to man to acquire it for his self-preservation. Hence, Paine says everybody has a right to property, Locke says: everybody has a right to acquire property, which is not the same.

        • John_Tomasi

          Nicolas, this is great topic for a bachelor’s thesis, delighted to hear that you are working on it. if you shoot me an email at Brown, I’d be happy to send you a paper I’m writing on Hayek’s (qualified) defense of social justice. think his view on that issue illuminate the problems about minimum income you are pursuing. best to you, jt

  • Why “private” economic liberty, specifically? It seems to me that one could have a purely voluntary public institution — wouldn’t that get around the standard objection that libertarians have to the public sector, that it’s coercive? Or maybe I’m misunderstanding how private is being used here, and that any voluntary economic activity falls under private.

    • John H

      I think this concept is related to an idea of government I’ve had for a short while now. Government is currently structured as an actor within society — it does think people do (makes decisions, provides goods and services, sometimes has it’s own interests more at heart than that of others). Is that structure necessary? I’m not sure it is any longer. Some of the rationale for such a government form is, basically, it’s too hard for all the individuals to get together and accomplish the goal: organizational, transaction and information costs are just to high. The active government is then the solution to these problem by reducing all these costs. 

      With modern information can communication technology could government start to serve as a pure cost reducing institution that people associate with one another within that accomplishes the exact same thing: reduction of these costs to the point that the costs of group action are not greater than the benefit represented by the direct goals of the collective action?  Seems to me that if our institutions of government did significantly reduce the costs to collective actions that your purely voluntary public institution would be realized, that these voluntary public activities would increase in size and scope from what exist today and these voluntary public activities would directly compete (hopefully replacing) with existing coercively provided governmental solution.

      As for should we call such cases private or public; not sure. It seems like an inherent confusion in the term “public” that in some cases it refers to government activities and in other “private” activities, e.g., corporation with exchange traded ownership shares.

      • Damien RS

        You’d have to show how these information-mediated cost reductions solved the externality and free rider problem.  The only way that I see is that modern tech could make shunning easier to do in a large society like ours; this replaces government with social norms sufficiently strong enough to be coercive.  I’m not sure that’s an actual improvement in real freedom.

        • Anonymous

          Damien, I don’t see how shunning could be considered to be coercive, so long as individuals have the freedom to shun or abstain from shunning whenever they please. If I tell you that Wal Mart is harming the environment and we shouldn’t patronize their stores, as long as it’s not binding on you to shun them, then it doesn’t constitute coercion on my part.  And if you did choose to shun Wal Mart, you certainly have no obligation to patronize their stores (absent a contract), so it would not be coercion on your part.

          • Damien RS

            Well, this gets to the nature of real economic choice, like asking a drowning person to sign over all their property before you rescue them.  Or a society that generally refused to hire atheists.  No one’s forced to not be an atheist… if they can live without jobs, or as a self-contained sub-economy.  The point of boycotting Wal-Mart or any other business is a hope to change their behavior via the threat of market starvation, by denying them business.  With real people, the threat of starvation is real, not metaphorical.

            Plus people are social animals; even if one wasn’t literally starving, being shunned by everyone around is generally bad.  It’s not coercion in a narrow sense, of directly threatening them.  It is creating conditions that will force most people to comply against their will, which is after all the point.

        • John

          The free rider problem is more a hobgoblin than and real issue. Who really cares about positive externalities; they will take care of themselves and if output is not increased why jump to the conclusion that the provided level is not “optimal”. 

          More important, the reverse , force carrying, is a much more problematic issue from a moral position. I never see those advocating forced participation in fund address this issue.  Supporters of the force contributions claim that either the person is getting some benefit (that’s the positive externality) or that some other group who needs is now getting what they need and it’s right to force everyone to contribute to the giving. As for negative externalities, the big problem in bringing the case as a tort claim are high organizational and  informational costs, making individual and class action suits difficult. The suggested approach (assuming we can implement such a new approach) will be reducing the costs to those impacted by the negative externality the level of such externalities will diminish.  More importantly, and related to another discussion you are in, it will accomplish the reduction without introducing other negative externalities that off-set any improvement.Last, we need to realize that society is not best served by eliminating all negative externalities. Even when we limit those externalities to the important ones that need to be addressed there will always be a positive level of within the society. It’s a fact that the cost of eliminating externality will cost society more than the harm of small levels of the externality. 

          • Damien RS

            “they will take care of themselves” — an empty statement

            “not optimal” — if you think ordinary market mechanisms provide optimal results, then an area where people cannot be charged for benefits provided must be suboptimal.  There would be more aggregate good if the good were produced more, but there’s no market way to signal that to producers and compensate them.

            “who cares” — the classic public good is national defense.  My presence on the front lines makes a minuscule difference to the country and a huge difference to my odds of early death; the rational thing is to shirk.
            For that matter, resisting the formation of a government would be (in libetarian eyes) a public good.  Or the public choice analysis libertarians love: actively resisting a tiny increase in taxes for yet another special interest is a public good.

            “big problem in bringing the case as a tort claim are high organizational
            and  informational costs, making individual and class action suits
            difficult” — well, yeah.  *If* you can solve that problem *then* you can tell us we can reduce (conventional) government, but until then you’ve got nothing to stand on.  (Realizing this was part of my abandoning libertarianism; handwaving is not a substitute for real policy).

            Someone said progressives didn’t acknowledge economic theory; as I replied, externalities are where libertarians in turn dismiss economic theory as inconvenient to their ideals.

  • Frank Hecker

    “It seems to me that one could have a purely voluntary public institution…” Well, it depends on what people mean by “public”: do they mean “public = government” or “public = non-market”? Open source software development projects and related activities are I think one example of this: They pursue collective goals, are voluntary in terms of participation but have both informal and formal governance structures for those that do participate, and they produce products that have economic significance although the production of such products to a large degree exists outside a traditional market context. I would count them as both voluntary public institutions and also voluntary economic activities.

    But in any case the conditions that gave rise to open source projects (including global network connectivity, increased significance of information goods, computer and other literacies, and availability of leisure time after satisfaction of basic economic needs) are going to be increasingly widespread as the 21st century progresses. One of the things I’d like to see on the BHL research agenda is investigating how such non-market or quasi-market voluntary public institutions could best be harnessed in support of the welfare of all sectors of society.

    • Nicolas Bas

      Open source development projects are still private economic activities. The developers chose to develop their software in this way and it is open for everybody to participate in the developing process. Why would that not be a part of a voluntary economic activity? Why does it largely take place outside a traditional market context?

      I also don’t agree with you on the point that you say that the developers pursue collective goals. They pursue particular ends, namely theirs. It just happens that a lot of people have the same particular end so they voluntarily engage in interaction with each other. This fundamentally different from a government that has the collectivity as its means and end. The developers indeed do have governance structures but these are rather rules of just conduct that are voluntary and non-coercive for those who do not agree to join the community of developers. This is again something totally different than the rules designed by government which have no voluntary component.

      • Frank Hecker

        I agree with your overall point that open source software projects, being voluntary activities, are different in nature from government. However they’re also not wholly market-oriented activities either, if by that we mean traditional buyer-seller economic transactions. (Most participants in open source projects don’t receive any direct compensation for their work, and the software itself is distributed at no charge.)

        Beyond the fine details of exactly how to characterize open source projects and similar activities, I guess what I’m pushing back against is the approach one sees sometimes in libertarianism (at least as it gets translated into the political sphere) of looking at things solely from a “market vs. government” perspective, with “economic liberty” then being equated primarily to reducing restrictions on profit-making businesses. There are lots of voluntary activities of economic significance in which the participants are not engaged in traditional economic transactions, organized along traditional economic lines, or acting primarily according to traditional economic motivations, and I’d like to see libertarianism, especially of the political variety, incorporate that perspective

        • Nicolas Bas

          Nowhere it says that market transactions are money-only transactions. If people engage in a voluntary exchange of good A over good B, that means that they value good B more than they value good A. But that can be anything. If I go to a bookstore, and I buy a book (B) for 25 euro (A) that means that I value the book more than my money at that time. The same with a farmer exchanging a goat (A) for 1 kilo of salt (B). If a developer wants to exchange his time for working on new software, this is also a market transaction. He values working for software more important than his time, at that moment. I see no reason why this wouldn’t be a market exchange.

          • Nicolas Bas

            sorry, I mixed up the As and Bs. it should be: value good A more than value of good B and book (A) and 25 euro (B)

          • Frank Hecker

            Again, I hink this depends on how far you want to stretch the definition of “market”. For example, suppose I voluntarily spend 30 minutes of my time filing a bug report for the Firefox web browser, or 2 hours writing answers to questions other people have asked about Firefox, or 1 day tracking down and fixing a bug in Firefox, doing all of these things (which are pretty typical for open source projects)  without direct monetary compensation. Clearly by doing this I demonstrare that I value doing these things more than alternative uses of my time. But does that necessarily make it a market transaction?

            To be clear, I’m relatively neutral as to whether we consider this a non-market activity or just a special type of market activity. But if it’s a market activity, then it’s a market activity without an explicit price put on the transaction (though of course I may realize other indirect benefits beyond just personal satisfaction and enjoyments, e.g., signaling to others my technical competence, which might lead to a better paying job). And even though both I and the project could put an explicit price on these activities (based on some standard wage level), both anecdotal evidence and some research indicates that doing so actually reduces the incentive for people to engage in these activities. So it seems qualitatively different from the types of market activities on which many libertarian thinkers seem to be focused.

  • There is something wrong with a “normative vision of what free societies owe the poor,” if you mean a “vision” (agenda) that is somehow imposed upon society. Free societies are made up of individuals whose decisions influence and are influenced by voluntarily evolved social norms. Norms are the product of trial and error, not de novo impositions by social engineers.

    • John_tomasi

      Thomas, thanks for these comments. i agree with what you say about about the ambiguity in my formulation of “vision.” here’s a (slightly) tighter formulation. there is a philosophical question about what whole set of institutions would be morally just. one approach says that if we, as philosophers, are trying to decide whether institution set A or institution set B is more just, we should consider how each of those candidate institution sets tend to affect the interests of the poor (say, the lowest paid class of workers). for example, lets say institution set A is a free market economy based largely on spontaneously evolved norms. And lets say institution set B is a socialist command economy based on specific government directives. Which is more just? On the approach I just mentioned, one thing to consider how each of these rival institutional forms tends to affect the interests of the poor. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Carl Milsted

    Economists like to talk of all costs as opportunity costs. Apply similar thinking to libertarian concerns for the poor and you quickly find that in many cases the concern is irrelevant. That is, if you take the noninitiation of force as an unbreakable principle, it matters little how much angst one experiences over the plight of the poor — at least in terms of political prescriptions. Minimizing government takes precedence regardless of the amount of “concern.” (This concern can have operative significance in regard to voluntary actions by libertarians. A bleeding heart pure libertarian can do charity work and/or set up B corporations, vs. the non bleeding heart Objectivist.)

    Now, if one is a less than pure libertarian, taking reduction of force initiation as a value vs. an untrumpable principle (as is my case), then bleeding heart means something. Personally, I am willing to sacrifice some liberty for some alleviation of suffering. However, unlike a modern liberal, I use a much different exchange rate. And I definitely loathe the modern liberal practice of looking for things government can do in order to justify those government actions which actually do further modern liberal aims.

  • Fernando Teson

    Welcome, John!
    I would mention a serious obstacle (already noted on this blog) to a fluid dialogue between libertarians and progressives: the systematic neglect by progressives of the findings of economic theory. I am referring, in  particular, to three propositions: 1) the beneficial effects of markets on the poor; 2) the problems of government failure (public choice); and 3) the costs of regulation. Until we can agree on the facts, we’ll continue to talk past each other.

    • Damien RS

      Fernando: In my experience, libertarians and conservatives also tend to neglect economic theory when it suits them, especially regarding externalities, Keynesianism, and monetary policy (cf. gold standard advocates).

      I agree that regulation has costs, and have noted for a while the paradox that gov’t exists in part to provide public goods, but democratic government is itself a public good.  (Restatement of public choice, I think.)  But it doesn’t follow from that alone that we shouldn’t try to regulate or to provide public goods.  Pollution regulation can have costs, but pollution definitely does.

      Someone will probably reply that they think Keynes is bogus, which will just illustrate the failure to agree on facts.

      • John_tomasi

        Hi Damien, thanks for your post. as I’m sure you know, keynes makes many moral claims as well as factual ones. so people might well disagree (or agree) with him on moral issues even if they happened to agree with him on the facts. do you know his remarkable short essay “economic possibilities for our grandchildren?” its super. it also reveals something of the moral dispute that i just mentioned in my reply to Fernando Teson above. Briefly, in that essay Keynes argues against the importance of economic growth. why? because he thinks that beyond a certain point the poor do NOT benefit from personally controlling a larger bundle of material goods. its a very interesting position, one foreshadowed by Mill and picked up and expanded upon by Rawls. I’m pretty skeptical. Anyhow, its a great (albeit provocative) read.

        • John H

          John, great article suggestion — and one that fits in to the larger BHL-TBHL discussion. I do think Keynes is wrong in claiming the economic problem is solved one the required material consumption is met. The conspicuous consumption goods will still drive economic activity. Moreover, the THBL will say that the relative levels of conspicuous consumption have some require egalitarian type adjustments. While Keynes seems to think this social one-upmanship is perhaps an idiosyncratic behavior we might ignore, the TBHL see it as a legitimate need that must be socially address. I think the BHL position is probably closer to Keynes.

      • Fernando Teson

        I just want progressives to concede that private property is good for growth, and that growth helps the poor. Is that too much to ask?

        • Damien RS

          Private property is good for growth, though laissez faire may not be best for growth; growth sometimes helps the poor, but sometimes not, and the help can be helped along.  There.

          The world is full of mixed economies; your competition is social democrats, not democratic socialists.  We all love markets.  But not always, everywhere, or unregulated.  Some of us also worry about how much private property people start out with, because what you bring to the table affects how much you win in the game.  Can libertarians concede that?

    • Mark Brady

      Agreed, with one caveat.  I suggest four propositions, the fourth being the impossibility of economic calculation outside of markets in higher-order goods that make use of the division of knowledge.  Or are you including this under no. 3?  (I’m guessing you are not.)

    • John_tomasi

      Hey Fernando, thank you for your greetings. I have been enjoying your posts for some time. Personally, I think there is a lot of important action under your point 1).  That action involves a crucial ambiguity about exactly what kind of effects we count as “beneficial” to the poor. Briefly, I think people on the social democratic left and people on the (dare I say) bleeding heart libertarian right tend to give very different answers to that question. One side cares more about equalizing the shares of people across society; the other cares more about maximizing the materials holdings personally controlled by the working poor. I’ll be saying more about this in a post soon. 

      • I agree left progressives in general tend to place a much higher value on equality itself  than do libertarians, but they differ among themselves in the reasons for which they value that equality.  My personal view is that the chief value of  social and economic equality is instrumental, and that a consistent social commitment to sustaining a broad and equal distribution of wealth is necessary in order to preserve whatever sort of broad-based decency already exists.  Power follows wealth, and wealth differentials are inevitably power differentials.  In a society in which even the lowest stratum enjoys a standard of living that is high by, say, global standards, but in which large differentials in private wealth are tolerated, the possessors of the largest shares use their advantageous power position to control the society’s politics and deliver even more wealth-power into their hands.   I believe historical experience shows that whenever something even approaching laissez faire market conditions prevail, the incentives and lack of checks are such that the wealthy independently pursue strategies that, however individually rational, have the collective effect of causing deep recessions and depressions, and impoverishing the broad foundations of their own economy.

        I also don’t believe that a healthy polity can sustain itself in the long term if different classes within it have profoundly different economic interests.  A society is more likely to row forward more productively, if broad shared interests make lots of people want to row in roughly the same direction.

    • Frankly, as one of the progressive, non-libertarian participants in this blog, I have been disappointed by the lack of economic, outcome-oriented arguments put forward so far by the bleeding heart libertarians  in favor of a standard utilitarian emphasis on moralistic, right-based arguments.  I was expecting to hear more of the former, but instead its been mostly the usual, “I don’t care what the outcome is, you don’t have the right to take my stuff!”

      • Really?  That certainly doesn’t sound like what most of us here have been saying.

        • Anonymous

          If I could put words in Dan’s mouth for a moment, it seems like the libertarians on this blog seem to argue that laissez-faire capitalism would do just as good a job of attaining social justice as government agencies. When liberals then ask “why, where’s the proof?” it seems like the arguments are always based on property rights. I know I’ve asked a number of times in previous posts for examples of why an anarcho-capitalist system wouldn’t quickly dissolve into small, greedy fiefdoms. I’m not asking to be an asshole, but because I actually want to know.

          Personally, I find the ideas presented on this blog to be really interesting. I guess I might be a high liberal in essence since I believe that social justice is so important that individual property rights can be sacrificed if necessary. I would like to see an argument that says that retaining individual property rights really does promote social justice greater than or equal to that which can be obtained through government agencies.

          Anyway, after all that critique, I do want to mention that I love the discussions here and I wish I could keep up with the comment threads as much as I’d like.

          • Damien RS

            If you’re right in your first two sentences, then I wonder what separates BHLs from regular libertarians, because it looks like nothing, by that account.

          • Anonymous

            Well, I think the obvious difference is that BHLs place an importance on concepts of social justice where traditional libertarians are silent. 

          • Damien RS

            But if this importance doesn’t turn into any actual policy changes, but comes out as “it turns out the principles we held all along just happen to perfectly satisfy this new value!” then, well, there’ll be a lot of skepticism.  In my experience libertarians have quite often said the poor will be better off under their policies.  “Without taxation the economy will be 8x times bigger and there’ll be more for everyone!” “Without taxes people will be able to afford to give more to charity and they will because people are good”. These are ancient maneuvers.

            Whereas, there are probably people today who value equality and social justice and would have been socialists 70 years ago, but are social democrats now after a bunch of history with overly centralized economies and nationalized industries.  Or who’ve accepted that strict equality of outcomes is not a good thing and you do need incentives and some potential for inequality.  Or that black markets will arise anyway and it’s better to work with them than squish them. 

            When an equality advocate accepts liberty as an additional value, this makes a difference to what is advocated.  When a liberty advocate accepts equality as a virtue, or even just not-dying safety rights, what difference does this make?

          • Anonymous

            Good points. I think I’ve been trying to ask your last question here for a while. 
            I’m not sure what the answer is.

        • “Taxation = theft” is not a formula that results from any attempt to calculate and compare the overall consequences of alternative taxation policies. 

  • Mike Valdman


    Doesn’t the account at issue obscure two normative disputes: one over the content of the desire to help the poor and one over appropriate constraints (i.e. what one can permissibly do in the name of poverty reduction)? 

    • John_tomasi

      Mike, I think you make an extremely important point. The way I think about those “appropriate constraints” is in terms of the basic rights and liberties the protection of which is owed to all citizens. BHLs insist that a list of such rights should prominently include private economic liberties. The lists offered by TBHLs (such as Rawls) include only weak and attenuated protection for private economic liberties. BHLs see the TBHL position as seriously morally defective for that reason. [BHLs also think the TBHL position is morally defective because of their (to BHLs) defective accounts of what it means to help the poor]. See my reply to David Sobel below. Thanks very much for your point.

  • Fernando Teson

    Mike and Carl are right. The problem is that the expression “concern for the poor” is highly ambiguous, because it does not specify the sacrifices in liberty, prosperity, or any other value, that the concerned person is willing to accept for herself or others.

  • No amount of “research” will convince committed levelers that state-imposed redistribution is the proper way to help the poor. The underlying problem is a conflict of visions (to borrow from Thomas Sowell).

    • John_tomasi

      Thomas, very much agree with what you say here about conflict of visions being key. opens interesting opportunities for bleeding heart libertarians. vis, whose vision of *concern for the poor* is more morally compelling?

  • Oddly enough, I’m about to begin a column that addresses this realm. With any luck and time to foster a little creativity in this aging gray matter, should see it at Rational Review by next week some time – Steve

  • Damien RS

    There’s one idea I’ve had that I’ve never seen discussed much, that seems to provide ‘public’ funding in a strictly libertarian way.  You’ve got your voluntary donations.  But public ones: donors get a badge, or these days an entry in a public database.  And people who care act on this, refusing to do business with non-donors, or at least charging them more.  If not enough people care then it’s a quirky boycott; if enough do, you’ve got a critical mass of shunners, and people will probably participate just so they can buy food and use the toll roads.  But if you REALLY don’t want to contribute to defense or welfare, no one will force you to, and you can sit free on your farm.  If you have a farm.  If you don’t, and no one wants to deal with you, well, too bad, right?

    The coercion-free, property-friendly scheme to funding public goods.

    • Georgian Tutuianu

      I’ve also had a “libertarian” idea for “public” finance. 

      My idea is really open to tweaks and alterations but the main point is that the government tells us we need to pay X amount in taxes (this could be the same total amount we pay now). What we can do now is give people the choice to put any or all of their money into several “public bank accounts” such as defense,education, welfare etc. These “public bank accounts” could also be much more specific for example under defense could be Afghanistan, Iraq, War on Terror, Pentagon etc. 

      In any case the money a citizen pays will also be accounted for similar to how your debit or credit card bank account works. So that when anyone takes out money they must provide a reason which is recorded and clearly visible. Thus, we have accountability and transparency because politicians can’t stick their greedy hands into the education fund to pay for defense spending unless they defraud the tax payer by taking the money they “paid” for education and misappropriating it. This would also help the IRS since we’d have an electronic database.

      My idea is similar to this but instead of general it is attached to every citizen.

      • Georgian Tutuianu

        Forgot to mention this important caveat. 

        If a
        congressman does misappropriate funds then, the voters will know and democracy is a bitch. (:

  • David Sobel

    I think I may be seconding Mike
    Valdman’s question but I’ll give it a go anyway. One way to understand your proposed
    research agenda is as saying that the liberal and the libertarian disagree (at
    least in this neck of the woods) only on the means to achieving the same goal—helping
    the poor. On this understanding, there really is no fundamental normative
    dispute but only a factual dispute about what would in fact best help the poor.
    That way of understanding things seemingly has the libertarian giving up on
    deontology, side-constraints, and the broad impermissibility of sacrificing the
    one for the sake of greater social goods. An alternative understanding of the
    proposed research agenda would say that there remains fundamental normative
    disagreement because while libertarians share the goal of helping the poor,
    they disagree about what the permissible means are to further this goal. 

  • David Sobel

    Ugh, sorry, careless reading on my part. I see now that you speak against the interpretation that has the dispute turn out to be fully non-normative.

    • John_tomasi

      Hi David, No worries. Yes, i think the dispute between bleeding heart libertarians (BHLs) and traditional bleeding heart liberals (“TBHLs”?) is fundamentally normative (tho they disagree on many important empirical  questions as well, of course). As I see it, there are two main points of normative disagreements. First, BHLs and TBHLs have different ideas about is on the list of basic rights the protection of which is owed to all citizens. Second, BHLs and TBHLs have different ideas about the content of “distributive justice” (mainly, different ideas about what is required by a proper concern for the poor).

      • Anonymous

        I see progressives (I can’t stomach calling them liberals) as wanting to use the state as a cheap substitute for virtue. They are willing to sacrifice the individual’s right to self determination in order take the easier path to clearing their own conscience. Libertarians, if they really are libertarians, are not willing to make that sacrifice. Libertarians are willing to make the efforts required to achieve virtue.

  • geoih

    What do “free societies owe to the poor”? This is a question a libertarian asks? Who is this society you refer to and why does he owe something to the poor? I think you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that these collectives are somehow entities unto themselves. The forest is not another tree, nor is society or the poor you or I.

    Society owes nothing to anybody. If you feel like you owe something to somebody else, you feel free to act on that feeling with your own actions and property. You can even try to get others to act along with you, but if you plan on requiring others act with you, then you’re no longer acting libertarian.

    • John_tomasi

      hi geoih, thanks for your post. i am sympathetic to some of what you say. but here is a question: do you think that a socialist command economy is just or unjust? One might say: society owes nothing to anybody so the question of whether that socialist society is just or unjust is simply nonsense (as my favorite football coach says “It is what it is.”). Differently, one might say: society owes everyone respect for their basic rights, including, say, the right to own private productive property. Since this socialist command economy (by definition) violates those rights, it is unjust. When i ask that question—“what do free societies owe the poor”—that is the sense in which I mean it.

      • geoih

        Society is just a collection of interacting individuals. To speak of society as an entity unto itself, with obligations or interests separate from individuals, is muddled thinking that leads to muddled concepts, like society owing something to the poor.

        A “socialist command economy” can be just, as long as every individual within that economy is there voluntarily and is free to leave it whenever they choose, without threat of violence or coercion to themselves or their property. Since socialist command economies are almost always also statist, they do not allow for voluntary dissent without consequences to individuals, in which case it is not just.

        • Damien RS

          If “society” is muddled thinking, then likewise society doesn’t owe the rich anything either, such as protection of their claimed property.  So then we can move to asking what obligation or interest the economically exploited have in respecting the property claims of the super-rich.  When answering, recall that Rothbard endorsed land reform in at least some circumstances.

          • geoih

            Yes, very muddled thinking. Who in society needs protecting, the rich or the poor? Do you really think the super-rich are dependent on society for their protection? The rich may have more to steal, but they also have more resources with which to protect their property.

            Rothbard was a genius, but he was not perfect. His thinking on many topics (e.g., intellectual property, environmental law, etc.) are not widely accepted within the libertarian community. Simply citing his name does not make something valid.

          • Blogger

             In more inequal and less cohesive societies, kidnapping of the rich for ransom is a common risk.

            The endpoint of unfettered laissez faire and rampant inequality is socialist revolution.  FDR’s New Deal was protecting capitalism from its excesses.

            So if 10 families own 95% of the land in a Latin American country, you see no need for land reform for justice or stability?  The inheritance of stolen property legitimates it in all cases?

          • ktrombly

            If 10 families own 95% of the land, how do you think that happened without a state power structure to create that situation? Concentrations of power and wealth have always been created through force and coercion at the hands of the state. It makes no difference if we’re talking about modern Latin America, medieval Europe, or ancient China.

            FDR’s New Deal created today’s problems: out of control state power, debased currency, and American imperialism. To think that the state policies that brought us to this point and created today’s problems will somehow now fix them, is more muddled thinking.

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  • Frank Hecker

    Prof. Tomasi: While we’re on the subject of research agendas, I’m going to bring up a question I asked some time ago on this blog, prompted by a remark you made in your 2007 Hayek lecture that “spontaneous orders, on the societal level at
    least, are almost always the product of design”. Now I am quite probably misinterpreting both you and Hayek here, but that comment made me think of the general question of institutional design. I mean this not in the sense of designing political constitutions or legislative bodies (which I understand Hayek had some thoughts on), but more in the nature of “meta-regulations” as established by governments that determine the forms and permissible activities of economic and other entities above the level of individuals. (For example, establishing rules for joint stock corporations vs. LLCs vs. nonprofit charities, and so on.)

    So to repeat my qestion: is there (or should there be) a BHL approach to
    “designing for spontaneous order”, i.e., to approaching such institutional design and meta-regulation in a way that maximizes the possibility of new societal and economic arrangements emerging that would be to be the benefit of all, and in particular to the benefit of those least favored by birth or circumstance? And if so, what might such an
    approach look like in practice?

    This is a topic of interest of me, and as a layman I’m not familiar with any relevant literature on the topic. If you know of anyone doing interesting work in this area I’d be grateful for any references.

    • John_tomasi

      Hello Frank, Thanks for your great question. My favorite example of a spontaneous order, following Polanyi, is a growing crystal. To sweeten the example, think of rock candy crystals on string. As the solution cools, the molecules arranges themselves creating an utterly unique set of facets that is the product molecular action but not of anyone’s design (playing on AdamFerguson’s conception of spontaneous social orders being “the product of human action but not of human design”). Nonetheless, in the case of rock candy, there a deeper sense in which human intentionality (or if you like, design) pervades the spontaneous order that results. After all, someone had to add sugar to water, heat up the solution, dip in the string, and so forth. Further, experience (trial and error, often) has taught candy makers ways of tweaking the system to achieve generally formulated desirable results. NOT ways to micromanage the order and thus seek to transform it into a ‘made’ order or what Hayek calls a taxis. But general formulations such as: bigger rock candy crystals (whatever the particular arrangements of the various facet thereon) better serve human ends than smaller ones. So they discover that a cleaner beaker tends to intensify the build up on crystals on the string, that seeding the string with tiny crystals results in much bigger crystals, etc etc.

      I see something similar with human social orders. My favorite sources for this sort of idea are in Hayek, Law Legislation and Liberty volume 2, the Mirage of Social Justice. At the of the Intro and around page 100 Hayek says of social justice that,whatever its defects as a call to particular policy making, the concept itself is compatible with his conception of society as a spontaneous order. As he puts it, roughly, “we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Its in those same passages that we find Hayek’s (to many) cryptic remarks about his having no basic disagreement with Rawls about the nature of the general concept social justice. Jeremy Waldron has recently suggested that Hayek thinks he agrees with Rawls because he, Hayek, misreads Rawls. With all respect to Jeremy, I quite disagree. Hayek got Rawls exactly right on this point (and people like Jeremy who think Hayek misunderstood Rawls seem to me to themselves be misunderstanding Hayek).  I think this is fairly easy to show, and have done so elsewhere.

      There are lots of interesting issues here for bleeding heart libertarians. i’ve written about them at some length in Free Market Fairness (including those bits about Hayek and Rawls). I’ll try to at least touch on this in my next couple posts.

      Again, thanks for this question (and for remembering my Hayek Lecture).

      • Frank Hecker

        Thanks for your reply! I’ll definitely check out the Hayek references you provided, and am looking forward to your next posts (and also to reading “Free Market Fairness”, of course).
        (Incidentally, you can thank an earlier BHL post by Jason Brennan for first bringing your work to my attention; I was intrigued, and then found your 2007 Hayek lecture by googling from there.)

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