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.