I thought it might be useful to revisit the ongoing discussion about what makes for a Bleeding Heart Libertarian. In this post, I offer a case that I think will separate a Strong BHL from traditional self-ownership libertarians. A Strong BHL holds that a substantial part of the justification of libertarian institutions is that they benefit the least well-off (we might say that Strong BHLs embrace a doctrine of social justice). Traditional self-ownership libertarians reject the Strong BHL position.
But the case should do more than separate two types of libertarian. If I have designed it correctly, it should help us determine which view is more plausible and to explain why.
Consider the case:
Libertarians Great and Small (LGS): At some point in the future a group of committed libertarians establish a libertarian free zone called Libertarian Paradise. In LP, all property is acquired and transferred in line with traditional self-ownership political theory. Deviations from these norms are quickly corrected by private and non-profit legal organizations (call them the Cops).
After several decades, LP develops its own political culture of citizens loyal to their institutions. Thick intermediary institutions proliferate within its borders. Many of these institutions provide welfare services. Due to LP’s unbridled capitalism, its economy booms, making its inhabitants spectacularly wealthy, so much so that charity easily provides for its poorest citizens.
However, through no one person or group’s deliberate action, prosperity ebbs. Perhaps because of resource depletion, climate change or natural disaster, a class of individuals becomes systematically deprived of basic resources (call them the Small). But while they are regularly hungry, they do not starve. And while they cannot secure many basic health resources, they do not die from easily preventable diseases. However, their poverty substantially sets back their well-being.
But the trouble in LP strikes the best-off as well (call them the Great). They too grow poorer, though they remain very well-off, more than wealthy enough to maintain a high standard of living. Yet they no longer feel secure enough to donate to charity. While the Great continue to donate to charity, LP’s charitable institutions no longer have sufficient resources to adequately provide for the Small.
Over time, the Small recognize their common plight. A period of sustained reflection on their circumstances leads them to develop a doctrine of social justice incompatible with the self-ownership principle. The Small claim that LP’s institutions do not adequately provide for their basic needs and clamor for redistribution.
At first the Small petition the Cops to require the Great to pay higher service fees and to use the proceeds to provide a social safety net. But the Cops reject the Small’s petitions for fear of offending their Great clientele.
Eventually the Small grow tired of petitions and begin to occupy local banks, demanding that a small portion of the fortunes of the Great be used to provide the Small with enough food and medical care to be able to get on with their lives. The Small do so non-aggressively, organizing a poor people’s campaign to nonviolently resist LP’s property regime.
But the Great are frustrated. After all, they still give to charity and they too have grown poorer. So the Great demand that the Cops coercively remove the Small from their local banks on the grounds that the Small are violating the self-ownership principle. The Cops comply.
The Small resent the coercion and complain that it is unjustified because they are merely trying to secure basic resources for them and their children. The Cops, acting on behalf of the Great, violently prevent the Small from securing a minimally decent future for themselves and their offspring.
Traditional libertarianism solidly endorses the coercive actions of the Cops. The Cops and their Great clients may be insufficiently benevolent but they act justly. By stipulation, property in LP is acquired and transferred in accord with the self-ownership principle. As a result, the Small are aggressors and rights-violators. In fact, according to the self-ownership principle, the Small are criminals.
But social justice libertarians (Strong BHLs) have a different reaction. On their view, the Small are not criminals. In fact, their demands are justified. First, the Small have only occupied local banks after petitioning the Cops to charge higher fees. Second, by occupying local banks, the Small are merely asking the Great to provide them with a very mild safety net that, if institutionalized, would in no way prevent the Great from leading excellent lives.
The social justice libertarian can go further and argue that the property claims of the Great are illegitimate. Their claims are illegitimate because the coercion required to maintain them cannot be justified to the Small given that their well-being is substantially set back by a lack of basic food and healthcare. On the social justice view, the Small’s complaints provide legitimate grounds to revise the property rights recognized in LP to permit (and perhaps require) the Cops to provide a safety net out of the proceeds of legal fees paid by the Great.
On traditional libertarianism, the Small have a strong duty to remain impoverished, hungry and sick. They are not in emergency circumstances. By stipulation, the Small will not starve or die. On social justice libertarianism, the Small lack such duties and can legitimately petition for redistribution so long as they do so in relatively peaceful ways. In this case, I’m with the Small. How about you?
(1) Please don’t respond with “That will never happen.” The purpose of LGS is to draw out your intuitions about what makes coercion and property regimes morally legitimate. That is why it is a thought experiment.
(2) Please don’t respond with “You’re a statist.” Nothing in LGS assumes that a state controls LP or that the Small want a state. These disputes are possible in a market anarchist social order and can be remedied in the name of justice through polycentric legal organizations.
(3) Please don’t respond that the Small aren’t really being coerced. Many libertarians want to determine what counts as coercion entirely by whether property claims are made in line with the self-ownership principle. But that’s implausible. Even private police forces have to use coercion to protect legitimately held property. Just because a piece of property is rightfully yours doesn’t mean your security forces don’t use coercion to protect it.
(4) Please don’t respond with a slippery slope argument. I was extremely circumspect about the sort of justification the Small employ. They reject as unjustified the coercion used against them because it requires that they remain impoverished through no fault of their own when the Great can easily aid them without any significant risk to their life prospects. To side with the Small, you don’t have to adopt any strongly prioritarian or egalitarian distributive principle.