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.