Over the weekend, my good friend Pete Boettke wondered why it was necessary for us to call ourselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” when the whole history of classical liberalism (from Smith forward) is full of thinkers who clearly cared about, for example, the condition of the least well-off. My response was that “yes, that might be true, but most observers of libertarianism don’t know that, and too many ‘true believers’ talk about libertarianism as if it’s all about self-interest to the exclusion of other values.” In response, Pete gave me the same eyeroll he’s been giving me for more than 25 years.
As if on cue, we get Jeff Sachs writing about libertarianism this weekend and saying:
Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.
Well Pete, there you go. Jeff Sachs is a smart guy, right? Look at what he thinks libertarianism is. This is exactly why we need to put an adjective in front of what we’re saying and doing, precisely so that we can remind even smart guys from the Ivy League that this is not what libertarianism means.
And now, for Dr. Sachs: you’re wrong. At least bleeding heart libertarians (and I think many though not all libertarians-without-adjectives) do not believe those other values are substitutes for liberty but rather complements. We believe in liberty because we think liberty not only improves the condition of the poor, weak, and vulnerable, but because a free society is more likely to be one in which all of those other virtues are practiced in a serious and meaningful way (see: McCloskey, Deirdre).
Furthermore, if the alternative is the use of the state or other forms of coercion to achieve a society that better cares for the poor, weak, and vulnerable, Professor Sachs cannot just assert that a society with less liberty will produce more of the other values, he’s going to have to show it. It’s not at all clear to me that the welfare state, for example, has in fact improved the lives of the poor, weak, and vulnerable, nor that it and other forms of state intervention have served the causes of compassion, honesty, etc.. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that government and the political process are hardly the homes of such virtues, while it is the private sector and civil society in which they seem to flourish.
Take a typical urban housing project, in which liberty has been traded off for all kinds of often well-intentioned attempts to achieve other values and care for the least well-off. When we look at its ratty government-funded apartments, ineffective welfare state support systems, human capital destroying public schools, racist drug war battle zones, and labor markets full of job-destroying minimum wage and occupational licensure laws, we certainly do not see a place in which the “poor, weak, and vulnerable” have seen real improvement in their lives or in which the virtues that are supposedly opposed to liberty are on display. This, despite decades of doing exactly what Sachs says libertarians won’t but should: giving up liberty in the name of other values. How’s that working our for you and those poor folks Professor Sachs?
Denying liberty seems to, empirically, undermine the very virtues and concerns that Sachs sees as opposed to liberty. That said, we still bear the burden of showing that liberty is not an alternative to a humane and virtuous society, but the means to that end. Until we have, and until even Ivy League smarties like Sachs recognize that libertarians do not see more liberty trading off against those values, I will continue to annoy my good friend Pete by using the phrase “bleeding heart libertarian.”
Thank you Professor Sachs for the reminder of why.