Social Justice, Libertarianism

What is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism? Part Two: Strong BHL

In my last post, I distinguished between three types of bleeding heart libertarianism (BHL):  Weak/Contingent BHL, Anarchist Left BHL, and Strong BHL.  I put myself in the third category, but didn’t say much about it other than that unlike the first two views, 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.”

In this post, I want to say a little more.  Specifically, I want to talk about three parts of the Strong BHL research program, both in order to clarify the position and to set out where the ideas still need to be developed further.

Justificatory – Part of the Strong BHL project is to provide a different kind of justification for libertarian institutions.  Strong BHLs stress that libertarian institutions depend partly for their moral justification on their ability to serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable.  They therefore differ from natural rights libertarians who hold that libertarian institutions are justified on the basis of something like a non-aggression axiom that must be followed regardless of the consequences of doing so for various social groups.  They also differ from consequentialist views which hold that, in principle, the suffering of the poor and vulnerable can be justified by sufficiently large gains to other social classes.  Strong BHLs have more in common with prioritarian or sufficientarian views, though personally I hesitate to identify myself with either of those positions outright.  I consider myself a moral pluralist – someone who thinks that, of course, negative liberty matters, but that it cannot be the only thing that matters, and it does not matter in a way that always overrides other competing moral concerns like (to borrow from Jacob) need and suffering.  But these are issues that I am still very much thinking through.  I’m attracted to the kind of view expressed by Fernando that libertarian institutions are justified by their ability to serve the interests of all persons – not just the poor.  I take it something like that insight also underlies Gaus’s public reason view.  And perhaps this is enough to get you something like a de facto prioritarianism.  So long as we assume, not unreasonably, that the interests of the poor and vulnerable will often be in the greatest danger of not being served, it might be that a concern to serve the interests of all will still end up entailing that the interests of the poor and vulnerable deserve special attention.  But I still have a lot of thinking to do about the overall plausibility of this view.

Revisionary – I held off from bringing this up in my first post, but then Jacob beat me to it.  And I agree with everything he wrote.  If Strong BHLs take seriously the idea that libertarian institutions depend for their moral justification on their ability to serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable, then what do we say about cases where they appear not to serve those interests?  We could respond, I suppose, by pounding our fists and denying that such cases are possible.  But this strains credulity.  I am willing to grant that such cases may be less common than many people think.  And I am certainly willing to grant that our faith in government intervention to relieve the failures of libertarian institutions in these respects is often unwarranted.  But perhaps this is someplace where my moral pluralism plays an important role.  For if you believe, as I do, that getting policies and institutions right is a matter of balancing a host of complex and conflicting moral reasons, then it seems exceedingly unlikely that the balance of reasons will always come out in favor of libertarian institutions.  Thus the Strong BHL position, it seems to me, must differ from the standard libertarian position not just in the way it justifies libertarianism, but in the kind of libertarianism it justifies.  What kind of revisions to the standard libertarian position end up being warranted depends partly on the exact nature of the justificatory story we end up endorsing, and partly of course on the resolution of a host of complicated empirical issues.  But it strikes me as not at all implausible that some form of state-based redistribution to the poor will survive the justificatory challenge, along with some forms of public good provision.  This is why I consider myself a classical liberal, rather than a strict minimal-state libertarian.

Historical – The Strong BHL approach to justifying libertarianism is thus a revisionary approach.  But I think that it is worthwhile to point out that it is not as revisionary as it might at first appear.  For those who understand libertarianism largely through the writings of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, much of what I have said above will appear apostate.  But part of my motivation for this series, and for the book I’m writing with John Tomasi, is to show that the libertarian intellectual tradition contains a great deal of thought that is closer to the Strong BHL view in both how it justifies libertarianism and the kind of libertarianism it justifies, than it is to the Randian/Rothbardian form of libertarianism.  Rand and Rothbard have had an undue influence on the contemporary understanding of libertarianism by virtue of both their historical proximity and their powerful personalities.  But in the larger historical view, it is Rand and Rothbard who are anomalies, not the Strong BHLs.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Anonymous

    I like where you’re going with this. And at the risk of sounding as a not-serious libertarian (intellectually speaking), I have long self-identified as a small-l libertarian despite never having read Rand or Rothbard; however, of course, I’ve been exposed to their thinking through those influenced by them. I came to my views quite without intention. Self-ownership, non-aggression and voluntary cooperation seem intuitively superior to the alternatives. What is appealing to me regarding your view is that it seeks to avoid the absolutism of these “axioms” and grants a degree of particularism that admits that context/conjunctures are important considerations.

    And I think I can agree with your initial assessment of redistributive programs, so long as they are based less on any positive liberty justification and moreso on correcting for systemic exploitation (I
    see this more as an issue of defending the negative liberties of the disenfranchised from economic and political agression than an acknowledgment of any positive liberty).

    And finally, on a slightly different note, I want to thank you for taking the time to blog this stuff. As a doctoral student, I find your postings helpful to my own thinking, especially in the (eventual) development of a dissertation question.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for another interesting post. I am wondering what, if anything, your commitment to the idea that: “Strong BHLs stress that libertarian institutions depend partly for their moral justification on their ability to serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable” implies about how you would resolve conflicts between fundamental libertarian values and consequentialist consderations. I have in mind the following sort of case. Suppose that the selected use of “private” eminent domain by the political authorities was shown to enhance overall societal welfare, including that of the poor and vulnerable.

    Of course, you might sincerely believe that this conflict is wholly imaginary because seizing innocent people’s homes and businesses in order to turn them into big box developments or office buildings is counterproductive from the utilitarian perspective. But I am not sure that you would want to go there. For one thing, I am not sure how you would know this to be the case. Perhaps due to political prressure the authorities will use this power sparingly and only when the utility gains seem clear. Also, the outrage and sense of violation experienced by those whose homes and busineses are taken may be of a different nature than the small positive gains experienced by most other members of the community, making overall utility calculations impossible.

    More fundamentally, I think it is pretty well accepted that plausible moral/political theories must be able to handle both real and imaginary cases. Of course, natural rights libertarians answers to such cases, at least until we face the possibility of “catastrophic moral horrors” (in Nozick’s words). Is the same true for “strong BHLs”?

    • Hey Mark,

      I do in fact think that there are good reasons to be suspicious of government’s use of the eminent domain power, perhaps enough so that its use should be barred entirely, or at least subject to very strict scrutiny.  But if you were to present me with a case in which we stipulate that the use of eminent domain will yield a large improvement in social welfare including the welfare of the poor and vulnerable, and (though you did not mention this) the individual whose property is seized is fully compensated, and (you didn’t mention this either) we stipulate that the use of eminent domain is necessary in order to achieve the welfare gains, then I might not be opposed to it.  
      So we disagree, I take it, in supposing that the stakes would have to rise to the level of ‘catastrophic moral horror’ in order to legitimate the use of eminent domain.  For example, suppose the use of eminent domain in the construction of an interstate highway system met the conditions above.  If so, I might very well support it, though I take it you would not.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the reply. I agree with much of your analysis regarding our different respective views. However, just to be clear, my comment was specifically directed to private emient domain, like the Kelo case. So your case of the interstate highway system is a potentially different situation. I acknowledge, however, that if we really couldn’t build infrastructure w/o the state, then we are probably dealing with a sufficiently momentous negative consequence to justify property condemnation, particularly if we are only dealing with a relatively few holdouts. Obviously, “catastrophic moral horor” is not a precise term, but if we couldn’t move ourselves and goods around the country it would have a severe effect on our standard of living.

  • Anonymous

    JBaldwin so succinctly wrote what I have taken hundreds of words circumlocuting:

    “…I think I can agree with your initial assessment of redistributive
    programs, so long as they are based less on any positive liberty
    justification and more so on correcting for systemic exploitation (I
    this more as an issue of defending the negative liberties of the
    disenfranchised from economic and political aggression than an
    acknowledgment of any positive liberty).”

    Now, could anyone post links to libertarian essays on redistributive
    program for correcting for systemic exploitation?

    PS Thanks to all who take time to post illuminating thoughts on political philosophy, esp those who created and keep the BHL blog running!

  • Matt, how would you respond to the criticism that BHL is merely repackaging libertarianism to make it more appealing to liberals; that is, BHLs are just trying to present themselves as being on the same moral high ground as liberals. (“We strong BHLs wouldn’t support markets if they didn’t serve the interests of the poor; that shows we really, really care about the poor.”)

    • Damien S.

      Well, we’ve been given more than one variety of BHL, or roots of such varieties.  So a lot of the time it seems like libertarianism trying to appeal to liberals (and not very well, nor with original repackaging), and the rest of the time we’re given hints that it might compromise on strict libertarianism… which could be seen as simply *re-inventing* modern liberalism, re-tracing the evolution of American liberalism from classical liberalism to something parallel to social democracy lite.  One day you’re going “well, maybe we should be obliged to keep starving children from starving”, and next you’ll be regulating acid rain and funding basic research.

      • Anonymous

        That seems to be how it goes. When you are willing to compromise the rights of the individual for the sake of others you open up a lot of possibilities for authoritarianism. As Roy Childs said to Ayn Rand, it’s just a matter of time. Strong BHL sounds to me more like quasi-libertarianism. Why not just drop the libertarianism and call yourself something else, Matt? Or at least provide us with a strict definition of where you draw the line (examples would be helpful).

        • Because I’m unwilling to grant people like Rand and Rothbard a monopoly on the term “libertarian.”  To me, their views are a relatively narrow and implausible strand in a broad intellectual tradition.  If I’m not a libertarian, then neither is Freidrich Hayek; neither is Milton Friedman.  Indeed, part of the point of my historical project is to show that almost *none* of the people that contemporary libertarians regard as their intellectual forefathers would qualify as libertarians on the Randian/Rothbardian model.  To me, that shows that we need to reject the model – or at least expand it greatly.

          • Anonymous

            Ok, Matt. Thanks for the reply. But I really would like to know where you draw the line and how you would justify that line.

          • Matt, I think part of labeling problem is that, since governments are needed to issue money and enforce the property rights that libertarianism relies upon, anarchists really can’t be called libertarians, so I don’t know if Rand and Rothbard should be associated with the term “libertarian” (though I suppose a “minarchist” could, assuming they believed gov’t had the right to monopolize money, but even here, I think it confuses things to try to bring anarchists into the fold).

            Perhaps stated more simply, it’s a fallacy to think that natural law rights can or will enforce themselves.

          • Michael Strong

            Glad to hear this.  I’m constantly considering giving up on the term “libertarian” because of all the whackos associated with it.  That said, it is a convenient improvement on the left-right axis, and relative to either “progressive” or “conservative” worldviews, it is mostly the best way to make the world a better place.

      • Michael Strong

        Damien and Michael,

        The reason that I identify as a “libertarian” is because I DO believe that markets serve the interests of the poor best.  I am a strong BHL because I would NOT be a “libertarian” if I did not believe this, and am a Georgist libertarian, in favor of using land taxes to provide Citizen’s Dividends to provide financial support to the poor, in order to provide additional support for the poor beyond the profound benefits provided immediately by markets.  I’m happy to desert the term “libertarian” and happy to compromise on “strict libertarianism” because I don’t care at all about “libertarianism.”  I care about making the world a better place, including eliminating poverty, war, and increasing human flourishing for all of humanity.  And relative to “social democracy” or to “conservatism” I believe the libertarians are MUCH closer to how to make the world a better place.  

        For instance, when you suggest that BHL is simply “social democracy lite,” I would point out that if academia and intellectuals had remained classical liberals throughout the 20th century, hundreds of millions of people would not have died unnecessary death and billions of people would be more prosperous.  Consider William Graham Sumner’s 1883 description of the “Capitalist system,”

         “Some men have been found to denounce and deride the modern system—what they call the capitalist system. The modern system is based on liberty, on contract, and on private property”

        Now consider the 2004 description by mainstream development economist Elhanan Helpman summarizing the current state of academic debate on economic development,

        “Although it has been established that property rights institutions, the rule of law, and constraints on the executive are important for growth, the exact ways in which they affect income per capita are not well understood” 

        Elsewhere in the literature it is clear that “constraints on the executive” include preventing governments from simply taking things from people.  Even though Helpman doesn’t provide a full blown support of “liberty,” his description is a remarkably similar to Sumner’s 1883 description.  Development economics for the most part aggressively denied the common sense of classical liberalism until relatively recently.  We knew pretty much how to eliminate mass poverty from 1776 to 1883, and from roughly that point on intellectuals and academics around the world put almost all of their efforts (with the exception of a tiny cadre known today as “libertarians”) towards eliminating our knowledge of how to eliminate mass poverty.

        The scale of these intellectual crimes are immense.  If the end of colonialism in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s had taken place in an environment in which classical liberal economic principles had prevailed, or in which Austrian economics had prevailed (the primary school of economics that refined and updated classical liberalism), rather than Marxism and social democratic principles, then billions of human beings would be better off today.

        Thus for me, when you suggest that BHL is a matter of:

        which could be seen as simply *re-inventing* modern liberalism, re-tracing the evolution of American liberalism from classical liberalism to something parallel to social democracy lite.   

        Your comment strikes me as fatuous and repulsive.  I want to assure you that my response is not personal:  I give you personally great credit for bothering to engage BHL.  But I will not respect the progressives, or social democrats, or mainstream academia until they come to terms with the scale of their intellectual crimes in the 20th century.  

        The smug righteousness of academia is the essence of their evil.  Marx’s pernicious discrediting of classical liberal economics was a great calamity.  But beyond Marx, the trope of ridicule picked up by Veblen, G.B. Shaw, Bloomsbury, and others that ultimately became the standard academic response towards the economic reasoning of classical liberalism is the ultimate culprit for hundreds of millions of death and billions unnecessarily impoverished.  Gurscharan Das’ has estimated that at post-1991 rates of economic growth, India will reach a U.S. standard of living in the mid-20th century, whereas at socialist rates of growth it would have taken until 2300.  By what moral standard can one sentence a billion people to 250 years of unnecessary poverty?  In the late 1950s there was quite literally a choice between Milton Friedman and J.K. Gailbraith as economic advisor to India.  The tragedy for a billion human beings was that Gailbraith was chosen.

        I have argued that if only the entire world was as free market as Scandinavia there would be almost no poverty nor violence on earth (Scandinavia is, in general, more free market than the entire developing world).  I have also described myself as a libertarian who is somewhat fond of the Scandinavian welfare state.  So, if you will, call me a libertarian who is in favor of “social democracy lite.”  But I will accept this label when and only when mainstream academia acknowledges Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and Rand as the moral heroes of the 20th century, and Dewey, Hoftstadter, Galbraith, and most of 20th century academia as tragic figures at best or, more honestly, morally despicable figures.

        There are no aspects of social democracy that I am, per se, against.  But Hayek, in particular, has done a MUCH better job of articulating how to make the world a better place (if one cares about the poor) than anyone else I can think of in the 20th century.  In “The Constitution of Liberty” he basically conceded the welfare state, while also taking a firm, thoughtful, and sophisticated stand on behalf of the rule of law.  In the second chapter, on “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” he outlines a brilliant, Millian argument for freedom of action that has not yet been adequately appreciated – Hayek was an advocate of the entrepreneurial, innovative economy before anyone else (except Schumpeter, who is also not adequately appreciated).  And yet he was ridiculed and attacked as a right-winger, as he continues to be today (again, despite a postscript titled “Why I am not a conservative.”

        Moreover, all of this is not merely historical:  Because of academic bigotry, the fact that developing nations are massively over-regulated is invisible.  The World Bank’s Doing Business index has been documenting this for nearly a decade, there is a significant econometric literature that shows that reducing regulation improves growth (you mean we needed econometrics to know that 18 steps to import a product into the Congo was not conducive for prosperity?)  Yet I rarely meet someone outside development economics who is aware of this, and even within development economics these facts are mostly kept hidden so as not to come across as “right wing” or ideological.  ONLY in the libertarian world to people talk openly and frankly about how to eliminate global poverty (a handful of non-libertarian figures, such as Robert Cooter, may also be included in the honesty club).

        With respect to developed world issues, there are also profound insights that benefit the poor that are almost solely found among libertarians – consider that Milton Friedman’s school choice advocacy is only now becoming mainstream, and that finally the mainstream is recognizing that school choice is ESPECIALLY important for poor children.  This is another area where libertarian thinkers led and mainstream academia lagged.  

        One of the problems with mainstream academia is they are acutely aware of incidents in which bad things happened in unregulated markets – but they are stunningly blind when billions of human beings remain poor because academia did not argue for property rights, rule of law, and economic freedom.  There are many distasteful and unsavory elements within the libertarian movement, which are frequently highlighted in debate.  But the crimes of libertarians are tiny in comparison with the crimes of mainstream academic progressivism.

    • Is that meant as a claim about my psychology or about the substance of my view?  If the former, I don’t quite know how to respond other than by saying that it’s false.  But since the question would be premised on the assumption that I’m being dishonest, I doubt that such an answer would be satisfactory! 

      If the latter, then I think the right response is to point to features of the view that are genuinely different from standard libertarianism.  For Weak BHL, this might be difficult to do.  But I don’t think it is for Strong BHL, for reasons outlined in the post.

      • Matt, yes, that’s a good reply. I guess the problem with accusing others of engaging in symbolic politics is that you end up making claims about what they “really believe,” and hence violating the principle of charity.

  • Anonymous

    Lots of talk about “institutions” and “groups”.  To be more precise, and more libertarian (prior to BHL or other descriptors), one would need to first establish the moral basis of action at the individual level. Aren’t all relationships one to one? When you recommend subverting NAP you are necessarily rationalizing a specific action of one person to another– whether the latter wants said action performed on them or not. Bundled in this assumption is property rights in other people, even if under BHL that property right is limited by particular situational constraints. But isn’t that how it starts? “It” being social cannibalism.

    • Anonymous

      Even if it is logical to assume that forced intervention is necessitated in some instances– especially to take care of the poor, weak and needy– it does not necessarily follow that this intervention must take the form of state action. State implies monopoly, collectivism, permanence, taxation, etc.

      Morality and ethical considerations exist without the state, right?

      In other words– the State is not just intervening the subject of welfare, but forcing a third party to pay for it.  Why not forego state action and have the intervener use their own resources?  This way there could be more socially horizontal checks against abuses of intervention. 

      Let’s admit that Matt’s BHL rhetoric could be used to justify enlightened slavery as much as care for invalids.  But let’s also admit that bad stuff can happen even when the NAP is followed (like boxing in a person on their property hence the need for easements). 

      Maybe a table of interventions could be made– from minimal stateless to maximum stateful. Maximum stateful should be thrown out as completely unlibertarian– even if you think it just. In the same token– wouldn’t it be more logical and moral to start at the minimal stateless end of the table, to err on the side of freedom so to speak, and avoid the institutionalization of aggressive force?

  • Michael Zigismund

    This really is the main question in the end, isn’t it: “What kind of revisions to the standard libertarian position end up being warranted depends partly on the exact nature of the justificatory story we end up endorsing, and partly of course on the resolution of a host of complicated empirical issues.  But it strikes me as not at all implausible that some form of state-based redistribution to the poor will survive the justificatory challenge, along with some forms of public good provision.”

    It is the question all libertarians must wrestle with: how much centralized help to the needy is worth the costs (once we determine that the needy in fact remain in a libertarian world)? Strong, Weak, and Anarchist BHLs alike must contend with the same question. Some have answered, “none,” after a cost-benefit analysis for all people, including the poor. I think you dismiss this conclusion too quickly with (understandable) incredulity, but the point to take away is that even “Weak” BHLs have also dealt with the fate of the poor.

    This is why I feel this BHL trichotomy to be somewhat illusory. BHL, it seems to me, is a theoretical consideration for all libertarians, rather than its own movement within the tent. As such, BHL takes center stage for some and not for others, but it’s always somewhere within all of us. A lot of what you’ve written, in fact, has led me to this conclusion, including your take on Herbert Spencer.

    So if this is the fundamental question for all libertarians — Will another unit of government provision benefit the least-well-off more than it will hurt the least-well-off? — and if we’re willing to accept that the answer can sometimes be, “yes,” then we must look to empirics, as you say. And turning to empirics, I refer to Hayek’s interest in decentralized welfare units as the most efficient form of welfare. Moreover, when communities make welfare decisions for themselves, drawing a line between prioritarianism and sufficientarianism becomes moot in any non-theoretical sense.

    Finally, I too second JBaldwin’s distinction. The needy do not have positive rights. But in a decentralized Hayekian welfare system, the needy may be assisted without their fiat positive rights being enforced to the diminishment of others’ negative rights.

  • Does “government” increase or reduce poverty?  Certainly today’s government regulations tend to limit what people can do to be self supporting.  There are all sorts of “regulations” that anyone attempting to start any sort of business has to comply with.  Regulations that restrict competition in many fields where more competition might be beneficial.  Government regulations and laws that make things more expensive than they would otherwise be.  Regulations that reduce people’s choices.  Prescription laws that increase the cost of maintaining one’s health because such laws give doctors monopoly control over the supply of medicine.  Similar laws that force Americans to pay higher prices for their medicine because free trade with lower cost producers is not allowed.  All of these laws and regulations make us all poorer than we’d be without them.  Force us to purchase expensive health insurance policies because these laws and regulations have greatly increased the cost of health care.  These are the sort of questions that Libertarians should be willing to venture as questions with those who see “government” as the solution for all our problems.  Then what about the fact that the US spends more on “defense” than any other nation on Earth?  We spend close to half of all money spent on “defense” for the entire world.  At one time we used to “mind our own business”.  Now we have military bases (according to Ron Paul) in 130 nations.  We have just withdrawn from Iraq, a country now in the throes of civil war thanks to what we did there.  We are still fighting in Afghanistan despite the fact that Osama bin Laden, the individual responsible for 9-11 is now dead at our hand.  We have intervened in Libya, helped over throw a tyrant there, but what is the aftermath of that going to be?  We allowed those who run “Wall Street” and the banking system to create an economic disaster we haven’t yet seen the end of?  Our government is so politically divided that nothing effective can be done.  All of these are things we need to start asking “why”?  Suggest alternatives to the ways we are now doing things…

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  • Stephan Kinsella

    As a standard (non-right, non-left) and anarchist libertarian, I’m not sure why you say, as a non-anarchist libertarian, that left-anarchists can be BHLs but leave out regular libertarians. I think many, if not most, standard and anarcho-libertarians are BHL’s by your own description, since concern for the poor (etc.) is a huge motivating factor for us.

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