Social Justice, Libertarianism

A different distinction

Below, Matt differentiated between “Contingent BHLs”
“This group has what might be described as standard right-libertarian views for standard right-libertarian reasons….What makes members of this group bleeding heart libertarians is the belief that libertarian institutions are good for the poor and vulnerable, and, perhaps, the belief that this fact about the consequences of libertarianism is something to be celebrated. However, the fact that a libertarian state is good for the poor and vulnerable does not play an essential justificatory role for this group. ”
and “strong BHLs”:
“The most important aspect of this view, and the aspect that distinguishes it from both the positions above, is that it holds that libertarian institutions depend in part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable. ”

But notice that the Contingent BHLs were given a joint definition: standard right-libertarian positions for standard right-libertarian reasons. The Strong BHLs, on the other hand, were defined just in terms of their reasons.

I think this highlights the distinction that has most struck me in our time here: between bleeding-heart as a reason for being libertarian and bleeding-heart as a qualifier on the way in which one is libertarian.

Descriptions of why and how market mechanisms help alleviate poverty, or of why and how state interventions are regressive and hurt the vulnerable, are a valuable core to both. But bleeding-heart-reason libertarians treat those general tendencies as reasons to be, well, libertarians, as that word is traditionally understood in the postwar U.S.

I guess that I incline toward bleeding-heart as a qualifier on the way in which, or the extent to which, I am a libertarian. And so, like our former guest-blogger John Tomasi, I think that libertarian property rights must sometimes give way to other values. John wishes to call the total hybrid “justice” and thinks that the other values have something to do with equality and equal standing as citizens. I’m tempted to reserve “justice” for the system of rights, but to say that justice is itself not the uniquely highest political value (here I am a Montesquieuian rather than a Rawlsian). And I would emphasize need and suffering, not equality or equal standing, as the countervailing value. (Though, like David Miller, Michael Walzer, and David Schmidtz, I think that need and equality are both sources of moral claim, sometimes, in some domains.)

One way in which I think this distinction matters: say that the bleeding-heart-reason libertarians are right about everything, on average and in the medium term. The bleeding-heart-qualifier libertarians will still say: need and suffering are valid sources of claim in the immediate term, and they need to go into the balance.

This is an idea I started to explore in my paper on responsibility. I doubt the institutional stability of any attempt to resolutely refuse to give material aid in response to acute suffering. And, given the inevitable surplus of social power concentrated in the modern state, that means that the modern state could not and should not just high-mindedly talk about moral hazard and future growth rates and rising tides when confronted with suffering here and now– even though those are all good and important arguments, and even though responding to the suffering here and now may well create moral hazard or sacrifice some larger future aggregate improvement.

But that’s just my own particular direction of the bleeding-heart-qualifier. In general, I think that there’s a genuine gap between theories that are more-or-less standardly libertarian for bleeding-heart reasons (however sincere and central the commitment to those reasons) and theories that aim to modify libertarian positions in a bleeding-heart kind of way. I value the former, and agree with them an awful lot of the time. But when push comes to shove my own views are of the latter sort.

  • Anonymous

    I am not a libertarian, but rather am exploring libertarianism. In choosing between “bleeding-heart as a reason for being libertarian and bleeding-heart as a qualifier on the way in which one is libertarian (Jacob Levy)”, I currently fall in the former camp. However, I trust my exploration of this political philosophy will not render me categorically static.

    I may not even be a BHL (libertarian institutions depend in part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable Matt Zwolinski) because I believe that to focus on the poor is narrow thinking. The focus should be on minimizing polarization of the economy, upsetting the balance that results in the concentration of wealth/power and the resulting economically deprived masses. Measurements of the effects of an economic policy on the poor is useful, but should not be the focal point. Focus on the poor led us to the unworkable political economic morass in which we (the poor, the rich, and the in-between) are currently drowning.

    I disagree with Jacob Levy’s distinction “…that libertarian property rights must sometimes give way to other values. I think that need and equality are both sources of moral claim, sometimes, in some domains.” Individual (including property) rights are core to libertarianism. History bears out that politics and morality can’t mix without birthing authoritism. But I also believe that David Sobel’s worries of the “…danger of encouraging too many sacrifices imposed on the rich for the sake of the poor…” is slightly off target.

    The Libertarian Platform states, “We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized.”

    It would be therefore wiser to develop a finer description of individual rights that recognizes concentrations of great wealth/power* not only results poverty elsewhere, but also threatens the peaceful organization of society by its potential to militarily overwhelming democracy. (* note: the problem is actually less in wealth per se, than in the power that can be enforced by the accumulation of wealth. Many wealthy people are a great asset to society)

    Concentration of great wealth/power causes an economic imbalance that impinges greatly on individual property rights and inhibits natural rights en masse. This description of individual rights would exclude economic egalitarianism. Beings are to be treated as equals, but along with equal rights comes equal responsibility and equal consequences. However, our efforts and consequential achievements are unequal.

    I for one have no interest in wealth/power, and am totally not motivated to seek it [when I could better spend my day pondering political philosophy]. I am interested in having my needs met along with a few modest wants, so the consequence is seen the efforts I make toward my household economy. But I don’t begrudge someone who devotes him/herself to acquiring wealth/power until that drive results in me being forced to clean up his/her consequences (by my assistance to the poor or repairing the environment). David Sobel’s worry for the ‘poor’ rich is ill placed. It’s the middle class who sacrifices for their imbalance!

    Discussions of defining where the rights of one-who-cannot-meet-needs-without- assistance ends and those of one-with-great-concentration-of-wealth/power/ begins and what constitutes is the central question. Focus on morals (e. g. “vulnerable” “the poor” or “sacrifices”) is a smoke screen to divert a fuller discussion of how individual rights are defined socially rather than morally, and equally regardless of individual power.

    The vulnerable are frequently poor, but are the two to be grouped into a single entity. Who is vulnerable? I am a single parent with a diagnosis of aspergers. Am I vulnerable or did my risk-taking and free choices result in my vulnerable state? I say mostly the latter, but having a safety net has saved my neck on occasion though I did not linger there. I am the product of generations of college educated, independent women so I consider vulnerability an anathema.

    I work with families who totally depend on welfare, yet have one child after another with no personal consequence (only the working class carries the consequence). The economic expense is astronomical. Yet these families have been on welfare for generations and have developed their social and cultural norms round their “family business”. Are they ‘vulnerable’ due to their cultural inheritance? We need to sort these issues out. I propose we define ‘vulnerable’, not all of who are poor, by their lack power to recognize and defend their individual rights, who cannot withstand the consequences of their actions, and while providing a safety net giving them the extra-economic support. The lib platform only address this in relation to government intervention.

    For me to become a libertarian, I likely need to see that there is a movement to develop a specific statement of individual rights that applies to all through moderating economic imbalances and addressing the extra-economic needs of the vulnerable. It doesn’t make sense to me to say I am libertarian, then support nonlibertarian policies for specific populations. I am already a registered independent.

    • “For me to become a libertarian, I likely need to see that there is a
      movement to develop a specific statement of individual rights that
      applies to all through moderating economic imbalances and addressing the
      extra-economic needs of the vulnerable. It doesn’t make sense to me to
      say I am libertarian, then support nonlibertarian policies for specific
      populations. I am already a registered independent.”

      Indeed. And such a program would, I believe, need to begin with a complete re-examination of the foundations of both standard (contemporary) liberalism and libertarian thought. The culmination of which might produce something that is sufficiently different from either that assigning it a hyphenated moniker (e.g., bleeding-heart libertarianism or libertarian progressivism) may not be adequate.

      For instance, as a liberal, I’m constantly chided here to take public-choice theory seriously and to acknowledge the limitations and perversity of government interventions. Fair enough. But are libertarians willing to take seriously the critiques of laissez faire free markets? Or how about just taking your own economic theories seriously when applied to goods and services with a moral dimension such as health care delivery?

      Speaking of economics, I’ve had libertarians tell me — with a straight face, no less — that Austrian Economics is synonymous with “Economic Science”. Well apparently they don’t actually know a lot about AE, because it’s actually explicitly anti-empirical, thus anti-scientific. Rather, the proponents claim that economics is a logical system on par with mathematics and thus can be neither proven nor dis-proven empirically. Pretty convenient if (when!) your predictions don’t work out, huh?

      If you’re going to cite Lockean property rights to support the homesteading principle, how about seriously acknowledging the “Lockean proviso” ala Georgist land-value taxation?

      If you’re going to cite Comparative Advantage to support free (international) trade, how about acknowledging that the pre-conditions for the application of the theory don’t actually obtain in the real world?

      I could go on, but in general libertarians act as if they have the perfect political and economic philosophy and so ascribe their relative lack of political support to some combination of ignorance, stupidity, or general evil intent on the part of everyone else. Whereas the reality is that when presented with the libertarian philosophy, most reasonably intelligent folks find many, many, points that elicit a “Yeah… but… ” because it truly doesn’t comport with the facts on the ground.

      I came to this blog hoping to find that “something different,” something that addressed the shortcomings of standard libertarian philosophy when applied to the real world. I was hoping to find something that incorporated social justice as a primary value co-equal to liberty.

      Finally, I’ll leave you with this: When the Classical Liberal founders of the American Experiment sought to break the colonial ties with an oppressive English state, they wrote these words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
      that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
      that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Notice that “equality” preceded the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

      As regards Social Justice, the libertarian philosophy asserts that Equality is a product of, and flows from Liberty. Might it be the case that that formulation is exactly backwards? That Liberty is a product of, and flows from Equality? Just something to think about.

      • That’s a fair question. I tend to argue that liberty and equality both flow independently from evolved tradition and the parameters of what makes societies survive (order) and thrive (liberty and equality). In a sense, they feed off each other. You can’t put the chicken before the egg. Neither “caused” the other. They co-evolved.

        Liberty and equality have a complex relationship. Without order, they’re naturally opposed. Just ask the sheep and the two starving wolves! It takes civilizing cultural norms to get people to respect each other’s rights, and to voluntarily mitigate each other’s suffering so government doesn’t have to force them to. Order, in other words. And one only has to look at Soviet Russia or Batista’s Cuba to see how order and equality or order and liberty work without the third. They devour each other, and, all too often, open the way for the third to dominate in its own reign of terror. Such is history, with its bloody pendulum swings.

        That’s why we have to work to anchor the pendulum with sound policy and reasonable philosophy. Because in the end, liberty, equality, and order have to work together to ensure the freedom of man and the survival and flourishing of mankind. That’s the best lesson history can teach us.

        It might involve departing from dogmatic egalitarianism or libertarianism to ensure that liberty or equality (depending on how you’re approaching it) keep up with the dominant leg of the tripod. But that’s what philosophy ultimately does – anchor our common sense in reason, rather than creating new common sense. Dogma is just a way-station on the deconstruction-reconstruction highway.

        Now, I prefer to approach reality as “libertarian unless otherwise noted.” But that’s because I think societies can mitigate unnatural inequality, given liberty, much more easily than they can mitigate a lack of liberty, given equality. One just has to compare the history of Greece and Chile over the last 50 years. Therefore, I can afford a bit more error on the equality and order fronts than I can on the liberty front. But it’s not incoherent to think of reality as “egalitarian unless otherwise noted” or “conservative unless otherwise noted.” It just takes a lot more effort, and it’s a lot more potentially dangerous if you miscalibrate liberty. Still, in theory, you could reach the same practical conclusions.

        Funny how I, a Burkean libertarian conservative, reach such similar conclusions to the “bleeding heart libertarian” and the liberal. Perhaps there is a reality buried deep underneath all our theorizing.

  • Pingback: As raízes liberais-libertárias: Quem são e o que defendem os Bleeding Heart Libertarians? | Mercado Popular()

  • Pingback: O que é o libertarianismo bleeding heart, que concilia justiça social e liberdade econômica? | Tabula (não) Rasa & Libertarianismo Bleeding Heart()

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: click here()

  • Pingback: Quem são e o que defendem os Bleeding Heart Libertarians? – Rodrigo Rey()