Matt Z. generously invited me to guest-post here at BHL, so I’ve decided to return his generosity by dumping on the entire enterprise, with love. Perhaps this will somehow turn out to be constructive.
I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.
Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.
Given the prevailing public understanding of “libertarianism,” this ain’t it and I’m no libertarian. And it’s not at all clear to me what is to be gained by trying to get people to retrofit the label to fit my idiosyncratic politics. At any rate, that’s not a project I’m interested in. I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.
One thing I think people need in order to be free in the sense I prefer (I’m not going to spell it out here) is a high level of economic freedom, more or less as the libertarians who make indices of economic freedom understand it. Standard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally. This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty–is essential to a fully liberal regime–is more than enough get you branded a sort of libertarian by many standard liberals. But one can hold to that conviction while siding with standard liberals against libertarians on many, many other important questions. The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.
“Liberaltarian,” ugly as it may be, has been useful to me because it offers a convenient label for a position that is neither standard liberalism nor a standard libertarian altenative to standard liberalism. Jason Brennan and John Tomasi’s “neo-classical liberalism” is better, in that it isn’t such a barbaric neologism and doesn’t suggest as much affinity with libertarianism, but also worse, in that it suggests something like the liberalism of neo-classical economists, which it sort of is, but needn’t be.
Labels aside, I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers. After all, there are many orders of magnitude more standard liberals than standard libertarians, and they possess many orders of magnitude more influence. We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.
Somebody’s going to ask “Isn’t Ron Paul making a difference?” So I’m going to say, “Yes.” None of this is to say that right-fusionism of the Ron Paul variety isn’t now having an influence, or that none of it is good. I’m glad to see Paul spreading a few profoundly important ideas about foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean Paul’s decades of bilking paranoid bigots with bullshit prophesies of hyperinflationary race war was really a stroke of strategic genius after all. Or maybe it means it was. But that doesn’t make it right. I don’t think Paul would be where he is today without all those years of vile fear-mongering. And I don’t think anyone ought to get away with climbing up that evil ladder, kicking it away, then pretending he was born a thousand feet off the ground in the pure mountain air right there next to heaven. He knew what he was doing, chose to do it, and none of it can be justified by a little TV-time for salutary anti-imperialist and free-market ideas. I’d rather not be affiliated with a “movement” that includes him in even a conflicted way.
Anyway, I would encourage other decreasingly standard-libertarian libertarian-ish types to hasten their passage through the liminal “bleeding heart” stage and just come out as liberals. Or, better yet, to come out as inscrutably idiosyncratic. You are not alone. Well, if you’re inscrutably idiosyncratic, you are. But the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic can be alone together. I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it.