Social Justice, Libertarianism

What is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism? Part One: Three Types of BHL

A lot of readers come to this blog expecting, perhaps not unreasonably, to find a group of authors presenting a coherent, well worked out theory of “bleeding heart libertarianism” (BHL) – what it is, how it differs from other forms of libertarianism, what its moral foundations and policy implications are, etc.  Those readers are, unfortunately, often disappointed.  First, there are real, substantive disagreements between all of the authors on this blog, such that none of us have exactly the same thing in mind when we talk about what BHL is.  And second, speaking for myself anyway, BHL is more of a research programme than a worked-out body of doctrine.  I started this blog with some vague ideas about the best way to understand and defend libertarianism that I thought were worth sharing with some friends and colleagues.  Since then, I’ve tried to refine and develop those ideas a bit, and the conversations we’ve had here have been tremendously helpful in that respect.  But I still have a long way to go.

So in this spirit of humility, I want to make just a few points about the way that I personally think about BHL.  The first point, and the one that I will cover in this post, is that there are really three kinds of “BHL” represented on this blog.  Below, I will make up names for these categories in an entirely arbitrary way, and assign my fellow authors to those categories based on my own idiosyncratic impressions of their weltenschauungen.  In a follow-up post, I will have more to say about the third of these categories – the one that represents my own vision of BHL.

  • Contingent BHLs – This group has what might be described as standard right-libertarian views for standard right-libertarian reasons.  They believe that the state should more-or-less be constrained to the protection of negative liberty, either because such a state is likely to produce better consequences than the larger states preferred by non-libertarians, or because only such a limited state is consistent with respect for individual rights.  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.  Libertarian institutions are justified independently and sufficiently on the basis of rights and/or consequences, and would still be justified even if they were not good for the poor and vulnerable.  For this reason, I sometimes refer to this position as “weak BHL.”  Among our bloggers, I suspect Fernando Teson probably comes closest to holding this view.  Maybe James Taylor and Andrew Cohen too (and Steve Horwitz when he was guest-blogging for us)?
  • Anarchist Left BHLs – Here I have in mind the kind of position exemplified by the Alliance of the Libertarian Left wing of our blog – Gary Chartier and Roderick Long (and Charles Johnson when he was guest-blogging for us).  I sometimes have a bit of a hard time pinning this position down.  At times, it seems to be little more than right-anarchist-libertarianism combined with some distinctive empirical beliefs about the effects and characteristic functioning of markets and the state.  Morally, anarchist Left BHLs seem to have pretty standard libertarian views about self-ownership and the ownership of external property and, like Rothbard but unlike Nozick or Rand, conclude from these premises that all states are morally unjustifiable.  What sets them apart from right-Rothbardians seems mainly to be empirical beliefs about the extent to which contemporary capitalism is the product of and dependent on unjust government support, and about the extent to which the poor and working classes would be made especially better off in a stateless society.  Whether there are any genuinely and significant philosophical differences between left-libertarians of this sort and standard right-libertarians is something I’m unsure about, and something I’d like to hear more about from our readers.  One possibility, suggested by Charles Johnson’s excellent essay, is that left-libertarians take their libertarian premises to support conclusions about proper social relations more generally, and not just conclusions about the size and proper scope of the state.  So, for instance, some members of this group seem to think that libertarians should be opposed to hierarchical corporations, and on moral rather than merely contingent empirical grounds.
  • Strong BHLs – Finally, there is my own preferred view – a view that I suspect is not too far off from the kind of view held by Jason Brennan.  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.  Obviously, that claim could be fleshed out in a number of different ways, and I’ll say more about this view in a follow-up post.  Until then, I’d recommend that interested readers listen to this interview I did with Kosmos Online.  It’s a bit long at twenty minutes, but I think it’s the clearest and most accurate statement of my beliefs on this matter that I’ve given so far.
Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Anonymous

    Hi Matt. This really interesting and very thought provoking! My initial view is that there may be a view that is somewhat of a middle ground between 1 and 3. Suppose one thought that that a presumptive but hardly conclusive reason for libertarian institutions, in particular a small state, limited govt (or free market anarchism) is that it is best for negative liberty, but that the justification for that kind of govt is not sufficient until one show it enables the poor and vulnerable to flourish. In that case the flourishing of the poor and vulnerable is an essential justification of libertarian institutions,  but one can make some initial headway in justifying them without discussing how the poor and vulnerable will fare.
       I offer this very tentatively and in the spirit of enabling discussion.

  • Aeon Skoble

    I guess one concern I have about this breakdown is that it’s not really accurate to say “Prof. S favors limited government because that’s what’s best for negative liberty.”  For one thing, that would be circular in a sense, but more substanively, it assumes that Prof. S holds up negative liberty as an end in itself.  But surely negative liberty is itself valued because of something – e.g., for neo-Aristotelians, a social order in which negative liberty is protected is good _because_ this is what is most conducive to human flourishing.  Liberty is vlued because of its instrumental role in securing a more fundamental value, human flourishing. But having made this move, I don’t see how that’s inconsistent with your BHL position.

    • Damien S.

      I don’t see that.  It’s perfectly consistent to have liberty as the highest value held in itself, a la deontological or virtue ethics, free of consequentialist concerns for happiness or prosperity.   IIRC Milton Friedman claimed just that in _Capitalism and Freedom_.  “It so happens that I think liberty is also most productive, which is a nice coincidence, but I would support liberty and markets even if something else were more productive.”  (Massively paraphrased from memory.)

      Whether anyone *really* holds to a deontology they believe would not advance one of happiness, prosperity, or security, I don’t know, but I think a lot of people think they would.

  • Damien S.

    As I read the post:

    1) Standard US right-libertarianism, anarchist or minarchist, is good for the poor!  But that’s a happy coincidence, we’d still be libertarian if it wasn’t.
    2) ???  Anarcho-capitalists who don’t have anything to do with historical left-libertarians of the Proudhon/Kropotkin/Chomsky lines.
    3) Standard US right-libertarianism, anarchist or minarchist, is good for the poor, and we might actually feel bad about libertarianism if it wasn’t.

    And nothing involves compromising libertarian opposition to taxation for any purpose other than defense and police, or embracing land reform, or ensuring an equitable starting position for each generation.

    • Yep. I’ve found this blog a couple weeks ago and spent quite a bit of time catching up on the posts. And for the life of me I still can’t see where BHL is _substantively_  different from standard-issue right-liberarianism. I mean you can _believe_ that libertarian policies and institutions — such as you would allow institutions to exist at all! — would benefit the poor and currently disadvantaged, but belief doesn’t necessarily make it so. It’s all well and good to express concern for social justice but that and $1.50 will buy you a mediocre cup of coffee. What does that concern translate to in regards institutions?

      The closest thing I’ve encountered that seems to me to be a substantive form of BHL is geo-libertarianism based on land value taxation. Then you can get beyond the “taxation is theft” paradigm and have an honest dialogue with liberals since you’ve got a source of funding in hand for social institutions.

      I’m a more-or-less standard issue liberal that has been thinking and discussing this for quite some time and I would look forward to further development of these ideas from academics.

      • Michael Strong

        I’m with Matt on 3:  I am a bleeding-heart libertarian because I believe there is robust empirical evidence that entrepreneurial innovation has profound positive consequences for everyone, including the poor, and thus that at least under some circumstances a libertarian world can be a Rawlsian improvement for the poor.  Relatedly, due to public choice theory and Jeff Friedman’s complementary explorations of public ignorance, most of the time large-scale monopolistic government will favor established interests over innovators.

        That said, I am also a geo-libertarian because I believe that ideally we should use land value gains to support diverse social programs so that libertarianism is even better for the poor than it would be without the geo- part.

        See here for one sketch of a “Georgist Libertarian Endgame,”

        But I’m 100% consequentialist; if I thought that libertarianism in some manifestation was bad for the poor then I would be against it, and because so much is contingent on empirical details and path dependency I can imagine various ways in which certain species of right-libertarianism could be anti-poor.

        Relatedly I LOVE the left-libertarian slogan, “End welfare from the top down, deregulate from the bottom up.”

  • shorwitz

    I think Danny beat me to it and expressed it better.  I’m somewhere between 1 and 3, and probably closer to 3.  Here’s the discriminating question:  suppose libertarian institutions make everyone *on average* better off than any other system but does not do very well by the poorest?  Would they be justified?  I’m not sure what I think, which I guess puts me between 1 and 3.  I do think, however, that how well any system does by the least well off is, if not justificatory alone, at least really, really important in considering whether it’s justified.

  • Thomas Hepplewhite

    No1 for me.

  • Anonymous

    Nice, thought-provoking post. I think there is another view somewhere between 1 and 3: negative right alone have moral weight because it is morally offensive for the state to coerce competent adults. However, at some point this consideration must yield if would produce sufficiently disastrous consequences, i.e. so-called “moderate deontology.” I think Nozick might have had something like this in mind when he held open the possibility that side constraints might have to be relaxed to avoid “catastrophic moral horor.”  

  • Anonymous

    Sorry to be such a newbie, but it will pass.  However, I will remain always a pragmatist rather than a dogmaphile. 

    Thanks, Matt on offering this organization, Like Andrew’s taxonomy, it gives a cliff notes jump start to my libertarian knowledge.  I also appreciate Xerographica’s study list.

    I am interested in hearing more about how Damien S. arrived at his judgements about “good for the poor”.  “The poor” is made up of diverse people.  For some, welfare is a multigenerational “family business”, and girls start doing participating (getting pregnant) before their 18th birthday.  Some people made poor choices or run up on some hard luck and need temporary assistance.   Others have a single disaster (natural or health) that wipes them out financially and they simply can’t recover.  Some have mental illness (still a stigma and with poor treatment outcomes) and others have developmental delays.  There are also families who don’t use birth control outside of abstinence – that don’t abstain – because of religious beliefs or lack of access to reliable methods, and they have more children than they can afford.  Any one individual could be poor as a result of multiple circumstances. 

    Will all (more or less) be helped or just certain ones?  Do our BHL hearts bleed for all of the poor or just certain ones? 

  • Haytham Yaghi

    Matt, I watched the video that you linked to and as I understand you were making the case that it’s not clear that there’s a contradiction between negative rights and free markets on one hand and social justice on the other.

    What about contradictions between negative rights and free markets? For instance, what do you think of anticompetitive laws, the DOJ blocking mergers which create a monopoly, or when governments prevent oligarchies from fixing prices?

  • I assume that it is not a matter of indifference to fans of 1 and 3 above how things go for the interests of the not poor and for the less vulnerable.Without that bit there is a danger of encouraging too many sacrifices imposed on the rich for the sake of the poor as such a sacrifice would not yet show up as any kind of cost from the point of view of the theory. So I take it the full view, most obviously for 3 but in some sense for 1 as well, looks prioritarian, with a broad concern for something like aggregate welfare but with greater weight given to the welfare of the worst off? 

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  • SocialWorkUnplugged

    Well said. Labels can limit or enhance. In this case, it feels like this label was an arrow pointing home. This fits:

    “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.”


    DSummerMan – The life of a social worker who took the red pill a bit late:

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  • Aajaxx

    Link to Kosmos Online interview is a dead link.

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