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?

Pre-emptive Remarks:

(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.

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  • Anonymous

    It is a thought experiment, but it is a world quite unlike our own. In this world, cooperation is not sufficient to make people generally better off. In other words, this is a zero- or negative-sum world, not a positive-sum world such as our own. I think lifeboat cases are a poor basis for thinking about what reasons and obligations we have when we are not in lifeboats, and I think the same thing here. 

    Here is another way to think about it. Suppose now in this world there is manna from heaven. But the small do not want to just eat manna, and they go through the steps you indicate. Which side do you pick?

    Now we ask: which world is more relevant or useful for thinking about obligations of justice in our own world? My thinking is that it is a dead heat for last.

    • Haytham Yaghi

      Your point about the zero sum world is interesting. But how would your opinion change if it can be shown that in some real scenario the poor tend to stay poor over generations and the rich tend to stay rich over generations? I think recent studies show that the US is slipping in terms of social mobility.

      • Anonymous

        I think it depends on what the explanation for such immobility (or, more importantly, lack of a general increase in measures of welfare, which I haven’t seen) might be. Certainly in the world we actually inhabit, in which there is (for libertarian tastes) grossly insufficient respect either for property rights or for rights of contract, I would think the best response would not be to chuck further obligations to respect property rights overboard!

        • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

          I’d say that the real basic problem being faced here, marklebar, is that there are real-world scenarios (not merely some dystopian thought experiment; it does not require a “zero zum world”, just a realistic one, which is one that has moral dilemmas and conflicts of interest) in which there are conflicts between specific obligations and values, even within a given individual. So it can’t simply be a binary question of whether one has one general obligation or not, at least not if we want to account for the complexities of social phenomena.

          On what reasonable basis do we always rule in favor of the obligations of property? When the obligations of property run into tension with my ability to survive or practically make may way through society, should I suffer and be passive in the name of property? When the obligations of property run into tension with the obligations of respecting other people’s autonomy and basic well-being, should I endorse diminishing the autonomy and general well-being of others in the name of property?

          • Anonymous

            Alex, I would say that you are welcome to that position so long as you agree, when others feel that *your* rights to property have to be overridden for the sake of somebody else’s autonomy and practical needs, that you will yield, even when you disagree. I don’t know you, so I don’t know the facts, and maybe you are sincere and consistent in this. However,  you would have a most unusual relation with what you do and how you live if you are willing to abide by rules that others are free to change whenever they deem it justified to do so, without your consent. If you are not willing to allow others that latitude, then don’t be surprised when your profession of such values doesn’t impress so much. I myself am not willing to live that way, and I don’t think most people are. Certainly we would not have escaped universal destitution to the degree we have living that way.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      “In this world, cooperation is not sufficient to make people generally better off.” 

      I actually didn’t get this out of Kevin’s post. We can grant that cooperation tends to make people better off and still worry about what happens to particular individuals or classes of individuals outside this general tendency. In Kevin’s society, cooperation has made people generally better off, but certain circumstances have rendered a class of people vulnerable, and the question is what we should do about them. 

      I don’t see this as a lifeboat situation in the sense of being an exceptionally rare or unrealistic scenario. It might not be as fundamental as the question of “what causes boats to rise generally,” but the question of “what to do about boats that don’t rise” is still one that a theory of justice seems like it ought to cope with.

      • marklebar

        Matt, this is what gives me this impression:

        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.As I understand him, it’s not the case that the pie is growing but the slices are getting more disproportionate. That would be one story. But I take this story to be that the pie is getting smaller overall, resulting in smaller slices for both Great and Small. Hence my response.

  • Aeon Skoble

    I had pretty much the same reaction as Mark, to be honest.  Specifically regarding preemptive remark #3, depends on how you want to define coercion.  Are you saying “use of force” = “coercion”?  Or should the word “coercion” build in a normative implication?  If so, then preemptve remark #3 doesn’t work. If not, we have another problem, though I suppose it’s neither here nor there w.r.t. your point – but I think it’s ultimately more helpful to use the word coercion in a morally negative sense.

  • Anonymous

    Let me see if I can put my point more carefully. One way to get at it is to think about what to say about the Occupiers. Simply put: either the are entitled (by right or by permission) to be where they are, or they are not. If they are, then the Cops are unquestionably in the wrong in making them move. That’s an easy one. And if they are not, then they themselves are acting unjustly and coercion is justified in making them stop. That’s easy too. The interesting question is which case it is.

    I think in our own world the answer is pretty clear. Such occupiers act unjustly and may permissibly be coerced to stop. That’s what it means to have property rights — it is the right to exclude those you do not wish to enjoy the benefits of your property. Certainly I would think that any view calling itself “libertarian” would take that as a datum. (If you think “social justice” considerations trump those obligations we have to respect one another’s property, you will need to explain how some people in virtue of general conditions of need are justified in appropriating the property of others which is at best remotely and instrumentally connected with some larger process which might or might not help in meeting that need.)

    Now, maybe you think that in LGS things are different enough that that conclusion does not come so easily. In other words, the principles we use to settle our obligations to each other (thinking somewhat contractualistically here) don’t quite apply, in virtue of the special features of LGS world. That might be right. And in that case I’m not sure what to think about LGS world. But I also think that, whatever is the case in LGS world, by hypothesis it does not apply to our own, for the same reason our thinking does not apply to it. The conditions are dissimilar enough that we can or should expect that different principles govern our interactions with each other. And that means there’s not much to learn from the hypothetical.

    • http://www.facebook.com/astrekal Alex Strekal

      “That’s what it means to have property rights — it is the right to exclude those you do not wish to enjoy the benefits of your property. Certainly I would think that any view calling itself “libertarian” would take that as a datum.”

      And this is the point at which it seems obvious to me that to remain true to the propertarianism of libertarianism, one must adopt a kind of absolutism that always favors the abstract “right to exclude” over the well-being of real people and any consideration for their condition in social relations, even if that means basically bringing out significant political force against the underclass. Allegedly, we have an unqualified obligation to always respect property, even when it is blatantly against anything that can be called our rational self-interest – this apparently overrides any obligation to more generally respect *people*. So, if need be, I allegedly must let myself die, or even be killed, in the name of property, when any significant conflict of values arises.

      • Anonymous

        Alex, there is a long tradition (dating back at least to Locke) of thinking that respect for people *requires* respect for property, for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t follow that that respect has to be “absolute” (depending on what that means; your cast on it is pretty silly, not that people haven’t defended it in those terms, but it doesn’t follow from what I say); it *does* mean (as Hume argued) that it has to be a pretty general feature of our relations, one not set aside simply because occasions may arise on which we think we would be better off violating rights to property. The reason for doing so is, simply, that by doing so we are all better off, and massively so, than by not treating the moral relations in property with that kind of seriousness. 

        You might disagree with that; lots of people do, and there is room for reasonable people to disagree about it. But I would think nobody would be entitled to call themselves “libertarian” and have that word mean anything if they thought property rights could safely be ignored any time somebody thought that overall welfare could be improved by doing so.

        Notice also that I never said that this is the “only relevant consideration.” It might not be. But it is for Kevin’s thought experiment. It is he that is narrowing the range of relevant considerations (as it fair in thought experiments to do), not I.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

    “The social justice libertarian can go further and argue that the property claims of the Great are illegitimate.”

    This point cannot be over-emphasized. Under our (again, Lockean) Constitutional system, the Great are not supposed to have power, by improperly using Cops to force legitimacy of its privately-owned debt-based currency, to deny property right status to Small’s labor.

    Small’s labor is often their most important asset, their personal property most likely to lift them out of poverty, and will contribute more to Small’s well-being than any charity Great may or may not decide to bestow.

  • Aeon Skoble

    “Their claims are illegitimate because the coercion required to maintain them cannot be justified to the Small given that”
    I disagee that A’s success at justifying x to B is what _determines_ the legitimacy of x.  I don’t think that means I don’t care about the poor, although it might mean I don’t care about “public reason” arguments or justificatory liberalism.

  • Rob MacDougall

    I wondered about your use of the terms “illegitimate” and “justifiable,” since both seemed to beg the question about which view of justice is right.  But after thinking about it again, it now seems clear to me that both views about justice are on equal footing in most ways.  The problem is it’s not clear who can decide between them.  I think this is the foundational problem here; if we assume that both parties are making bona fide claims about their views of justice, and that (as is made admirably clear by the example) both stand to benefit from their own view more than the other’s, we begin to see the extent of the problem.  There are two choices for both parties, either of which I think would be “right,” ie. permissible for either party given their views about rights and “justice.”  Since the Greats have a view of justice that understands the Smalls to have violated it, they are strictly right to use force against the smalls to protect their property, just as one nation is justified in going to war with another nation that transgresses on its property.  Likewise, the Smalls, on their new view of justice, find the Greats to transgress their rights; they are also justified in using force to obtain the resources of the Greats.  As you stipulated, their view understands the position of the Greats to be a standing violation of their rights.  The second course of action is that the two parties could agree to some neutral dispute-resolver or process for peaceably resolving their dispute.  No doubt, the Greats would have relatively more power than the Smalls in either situation, either in going to war, or in determining the conditions under which a dispute-resolver could resolve the dispute.  But that could not be understood as a violation of anyone’s “rights” without assuming one view of right as correct, and it’s not clear who could do this impartially.  It is true that the Smalls will feel that their conception of justice got the shaft; unfortunately, there is no theoretical or other way of dealing with this problem.  It’s just life.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t actually think this case does a very good job at the stated task of providing a case in which self-ownership and non-self-ownership libertarianism diverge. The problem is you’ve built too much about property acquisition into the notion of self-ownership — too much both in that i) no particular view on acquisition follows from self-ownership itself (the work of Cohen, Otsuka etc make this very clear) and ii) the most plausible forms of self-ownership views will anyway incorporate a non-trivial proviso on initial and continued appropriation of natural resources. Now it’s highly debatable what form this proviso should take and what the relevant baseline of comparison should be, but it’s hardly alien to the tradition to include one, and it seems plausible to me that however precisely it’s developed it will have something to say about the kind of case you raise.

    Just as an aside, if you really want an example that’s sensitive to the difference between self-ownership libertarians and the BHL crowd, how about something like this:

    A group of committed resource-egalitarian self-ownership libertarians establish a society. Because they are resource egalitarians, they institute a strict and rigidly enforced policy that the value of the bundle of natural resources owned by each person must be equal (no inequality arising via trading is permitted!). But since they are self-ownership egalitarians, they believe that each person has an absolute right over their own labour. Consequently, there arises a thriving market in the pure provision of services — voluntary exchanges in which one person’s labour is exchanged for another’s, and in which no natural resources are transferred.

    Now we can suppose that a similar turn of events occurs as in your story: prosperity reigns, followed by a decline. A class of individuals become systematically deprived of the services of others, perhaps because their own labour is not highly valued. They don’t starve; the egalitarian division of natural resources ensures that. But they are nevertheless unable to receive many of the benefits of the specialized skills of others: for instance they are unable to obtain treatment from doctors when they are ill, they are unable to persuade teachers to educate their children, and so on. As a result their well-being is substantially set back.

    I wonder what the BHL reaction to this case would be. For my own part, my intuitions are strongly against the permissibility of “redistributing” the labour of the rich by forcing them to provide services against their will. The benefit of considering this case is that it’s a pure case in which self-ownership, and not external property rights, is doing the work.

    • Michael Cust

      Two comments:

      1) I don’t think the work of Cohen, Otsuka, etc. has shown much of anything. Many people have been moved away from the egalitarian camp and into the self-ownership libertarian camp by its defenders, especially popular authors like Rothbard and Rand. I know of no one — and don’t suspect there are very many — who have been moved to embrace left-libertarian arguments who didn’t already reject libertarianism. Left-libertarianism strikes me as an attempt by some egalitarian to appropriate libertarian concepts and ideas and it’s not a very compelling one given that basically no libertarians have been moved by it.

      2) What is the difference between a resource and  a service? Isn’t all tradeable value a product of services? Oil, for example, is worthless until someone pumps it out of the ground. You can say, ‘well, people pay for oil rights before it’s drilled’, but you’re paying for the right undertake the service because you can sell the fruits of it — oil with labour attached to it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Gardner/100003393676310 Keith Gardner

        if the wealthy fund and propagandize a movement for the wealthy, it is unlikely the poor will be about to propagandize a movement to have as many members. they’ll just put more libertarian activists on the payroll like how they just put more cops on payroll rather than remedy the problem which cause a need for more cops.

  • Michael Wernecke

    I am with the Small, but I’m some sort of liberal, not a libertarian, so that’s easy for me. I would be with the Small with about 90% less stipulations. In fact, I’d be interested in what you think the test case would be for Liberal vs. BHL. As with the ‘type of libertarian’ dispute, I think it’s often debated at a theoretical level that’s hard to cash out, and could use a good thought experiment. And at least judging by the poll you guys ran when the site was newer, you have a good number of liberal readers.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

     Hi Kevin,

     

    I have real problems with the ways that
    moral terminology is used in your post.

     

    If the Small clamour for redistribution because their ‘basic
    needs’ are not adequately provided for, that has nothing to do with justice.
    You can call it ‘social justice,’ but that term should then be seen as a single
    expression, with no relation to the contained expression ‘justice.’ The ‘justice’
    in ‘social justice’ is like the ‘cat’ in ‘catch.’

     

    You say that the Small are not criminals,
    because their demands are justified. I take it that by ‘justified’ here you
    mean ’legitimate.’ But there is no inconsistency in saying that their action is
    both legitimate and criminal. Sometimes it is morally right to break the law.
    The fact is, the Small are acting unjustly and also criminally; but they might
    still be dong the right thing. There is more to right action than simply
    justice; and certainly more to it than simply obeying the law.

     

    You say that ‘on traditional
    libertarianism, the Small have a strong duty to remain impoverished, hungry and sick.’ That is plain false. The small have a
    duty not to violate the property rights of others. It might be that adhering to
    that duty means they remain impoverished, etc. But they have no duty to remain
    impoverished, etc.

     

    I do not impugn the appropriateness of your
    imaginary case. I even concede that it might happen (anything might happen).
    But if it does, we then face the question about what to do. We should face this
    question honestly and ask: under these circumstances would it be right or
    legitimate for me, or for us, to violate the rights of others, to commit unjust
    acts, for the sake of other values? Some people may decide one way, others
    another. There will be a great temptation for those who decide that it is
    legitimate on this occasion to act unjustly to describe what they are doing as
    some kind of justice. But that is just a way of trying to hide the bad side of
    what they are doing. It is a kind of dishonesty, namely, the much-studied
    dishonesty of cognitive dissonance. I guess that is what lies behind the term ‘social
    justice.’ It ain’t no kind of justice; but it is a way of trying to legitimate
    behaviour that crosses customary moral lines. As I said above, there need be
    nothing wrong with crossing customary moral lines; but I think that, for our
    own sakes, we should be clear about what we are doing.

     

    Please keep up the posts. I know all my
    comments have been critical. But that is the nature of debate. I am enjoying
    your posts and learning from them.

     

    Danny

    • Kevin Vallier

      There is a lot important going on in these threads. I may do a post in response, but here’s the one thing I can’t let go: Danny, you have *got* to get rid of the gigantic gaps in your comments. :)

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

         Yeah, I know. A formatting problem. I know how it happened, so I should be able to avoid it in future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wiebe/1440756026 Michael Wiebe

    A couple thoughts:

    In your story, you say that, on the one hand, the Great are wealthy enough that a small portion of their fortunes could provide the Small with a decent standard of living. But on the other hand, the Great are not so wealthy that their charitable donations can adequately provide for the Small. In other words, the Great are rich enough that redistribution will work, but poor enough that charity won’t work. There’s a tension here, one which detracts from the plausibility of the story.

    The Cops, acting on behalf of the Great, violently prevent the Small from securing a minimally decent future for themselves and their offspring.

    On traditional libertarianism, the Small have a strong duty to remain impoverished, hungry and sick.

    This move only works if you’re assuming that instituting redistribution is the only option available to the Small to provide themselves a decent standard of living.

    • Anonymous

      Michael, the tension that you say is implausible enough detract from the argument is exactly what we observe in the real world. And it seems obvious to me that this was intentional on Kevin’s part. If you’re coming from some economic view on which the actual, observed behaviour of the rich is this implausible, I suggest you revise that view.

  • Jorge Flores

    If the Small and the Great are the same kind of people, what prevents the Small from slowly reaching the same standard of living of the Great? Why can’t the Small get jobs with the Great, acquire skills, and slowly regain prosperity? The assumption that even though it’s a libertarian society, one group of people systematically remain impoverished while another group doesn’t seems disconnected from the real world. Things could remain this way in the long-run.

  • Gordon Sollars

    Due to variations in property values, over time all the Smalls  live in Smallville, which is entirely to the east of Greatopolis, where all the Greats live.  One night, when all are asleep in their homes, a huge earthquake separates Smallville from Greatopolis, and a small sea forms between them.  The Greats and Smalls continue to engage in trade via boats, but somehow the Smalls remain impoverished.  The Smalls attempt to continue their protest, but the Cops will only allow trade goods off the boats.  Smalls who attempt to leave a boat for one of the banks are forcibly prevented from leaving.

    Are you still with the Smalls? 

  • Michael Cust

    Interesting. You’ve identified a contour where libertarianism is incompatible with minimal social justice demands and that makes you think.

    My inclination is to respect the Great’s claim. The reason is that you’ve set it up as a story of competing rights claims and I’m not inclined to give in to someone’s demand to have a share of someone else’s resources barring a threat to basic order (e.g. bread riots). I tend to agree with Hobbes that the principle of non-intervention is justified insofar as it serves peace. Where non-intervention threatens peace then, and only then, intervention is justified. That allows for basic welfare. It makes me different than the self-ownership libertarians you point out, but I’m certainly not in BHL territory you’re trying to move to.

    Had you set this up as the same two classes, without either making rights claims against the other, I’d be more inclined to favour redistribution. Although I support the right to demonstrate, even in an obstructionist fashion, I’m disinclined to respond to it. I’m more moved by dispassionate reasons.

  • Anonymous

    Kevin, the problem I see with your idea of overriding property rights to provide for the poor is that I insist on reserving for myself the right to decide how much of and who I will share my property with (and if you knew me then you would know that I’m not shy about sharing my stuff  and my time with others in my community who are less well off then me). It’s up to me and not you or anyone else to decide if someone else is worthy of receiving my help (that is, so long as I didn’t actually cause someone else’s problems). And, in my mind, holding other people responsible for situations that they had no part in causing is not such a good idea. It tends to cause justified resentment.

    I suggest that you and anyone else who shares your view should show your committment to it by announcing to your community that you are opening up your home and any other property you own to whoever decides that they are in need of your assistance, and tell them that until you run out of everything they are free to come in and help themselves to anything they feel will help them through their troubles. Now that would be impressive. But I’m betting that it wouldn’t last very long.

    • Anonymous

      To add to what I said above, Kevin, in my opinion bleeding heart libertarianism should be about practicing virtue, as an individual, and encouraging (not forcing) others to join you. It should involve leading by example, and allowing others to choose whether or not to follow that example. I think that if we all tried that approach we would be surprised at the results.

    • Haytham Yaghi

      Since you mentioned that you should be the one to decide how much to pay and to whom, I’ve been thinking of this slightly related idea for a while. What if when it comes to pay taxes, you were given a choice of government organizations to allocate them to. I know that some people consider taxes immoral altogether but the idea would be something in the middle. In the process, government organizations will have to be more efficient because now people are not only voting on them in the voting booth, but also with their pockets. What do you think?

      • Anonymous

        Because governments (states) are coercive monopoly institutions I am skeptical that the idea of each individual allocating their taxes any way the please would ever be allowed. If it could be allowed then it would be better than the situation we have now. But I’m of the opinion that compulsory taxes are a violation of individual rights, so I consider them to be immoral.

  • Anonymous

    Kevin,
    Not to pile on or anything, but there are, I suggest, no “classes” of Greats and Smalls, just individual persons with unique, values, characters and histories. At any one moment they may fall into the category of Great or Small, but they were not born thay way, and may transition from one group to another at various points in their lives. Of course, you may construct your case in such a way as to exclude these basic facts about our human experience, but if you do so you greatly reduce the relevance of yur scenario to our actual world.

    I won’t side with the Smalls as a class, but I might side with particular individuals now falling into the Small category depending on the facts that account for their being in this position.

    • Haytham Yaghi

      What about societies with very rigid social mobility where the Smalls stay so over generations and the Greats as well?

      Or what about societies where the Greats look down at the Smalls and consider them lesser human beings? These societies would tend to be so rigid and so classist that the Smalls only interact with the Smalls and the Greats organize themselves into rich clubs and only interact with their peers?Would you still think of everyone as an individual where class plays no role in the social interactions within society?

      Maybe by acknowledging class, we could understand some aspects of why the Small stay small and the Greats stay Great.

      • Anonymous

        Haythem,
        The child born with severe developmental disabilities and the middle class kid who drops out of high school to pursue his futile quest to be a rock star may both be members of the Smalls, but I don’t think it useful to think of them as members of the same class. Of course, if you reject all notions of personal responsibility, you might get there, but thankfully most members of our society are not so divorsed from their everyday experience to think this way.

        As said in my first comment, you can simply specify any thought experiment in a way that will force certain moral conslusions–as you seem to be doing in your second paragraph–but this then introduces an empirical debate about how realistically you are modeling our actual world. I have opinions about this, but claim no special expertise.

        • Haytham Yaghi

          I think you nailed the source of differences in opinions:

          – On one extreme, there’s a complete denial of personal responsibility and on the other there’s a complete denial of circumstantial factors (in the sense that the poor choices you make in life and that keep you poor are a result of you not knowing any better because you were born in circumstances that didn’t provide you with adequate education). These two extremes are obviously simplistic and far from the truth. The main argument is how much importance you attribute to each.

          – This ties in to how realistic you want your thought experiment to be: Are poor people in a certain society poor because they’re lazy and willingly make the wrong choices, or are they poor because given the circumstances they grew up in makes them prone to making choices that maintain their poverty, or even because the opportunities they get in life are limited because of their poor background? Here again, supporting any extreme is obviously the naive thing to do, but people would disagree where to draw the line.

  • Michael Zigismund

    WHAT A GREAT THOUGHT EXPERIMENT! So much to consider.

    I would add a few conditions to clarify that the Small have no other options available. (eg. income mobility has
    somehow stagnated, they have no option of mobility to a welfare community elsewhere, etc.)

    • http://profiles.google.com/kdhall61 Kenneth Hall

      The mobility point is an interesting one. It’s implicit, as I see it, in the work of James C. Scott (The Art of Not Being Governed, among others). In the types of settings Scott investigates, there are almost always “the Territories,” out to which one may light if things start to get too civilized or otherwise unsuited to one’s taste. :-)

  • berserkrl

    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.

     

    Suppose part of one’s justification for self-ownership is
    that it benefits the least well-off — or at least that in the process of
    justifying self-ownership, concerns for the least well-off would have been a
    potential defeater.  What kind of
    libertarianism would that be?

    Due to LP’s unbridled
    capitalism

     

    Wait, I thought it was supposed to be libertarian?

     

    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.

    But on a eudaimonist conception of justice, the well-being
    of the Small would be even more substantially set back by
    the corruption of their souls involved in doing injustice to the Great. Of
    course we haven’t yet established what counts as injustice against the Great;
    that’s part of what’s at issue here.  My
    point is just that from a eudaimonist standpoint, in weighing how well off people
    are, food and healthcare are not going to be the only relevant values.  Or, as I put it before, deontological
    considerations play a role in determining what counts as a good consequence
    (though of course vice versa).  So it is
    too quick to say that the relevant coercion cannot be justified to the Small.

     

    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?

     

    Well, there are multiple questions here. 

     

    As I read your story, the Small are claiming both a) that
    the Great have a moral duty to help the Small, and b) that this duty is
    legitimately enforceable.   As far as (a) goes, I’m certainly with the
    Small.  But (b) of course does not follow
    from (a). 

     

    Many will have the reaction that (a) is small beer without
    (b); but one of the insights of libertarian social theory, surely, is that we
    need both to lower our expectations as to what can
    usefully be accomplished by force, and to raise our expectations
    as to what can usefully be accomplished by nonviolent means. 

     

    As for (b), a crucial question is at what
    point
    — namely upstream or downstream from the relevant principles
    of justice — the needs of the least well-off are coming into deliberative play.  After all, if consideration of the needs of
    the least well off has already played a part in establishing the self-ownership
    principle, it would be double counting to bring them in again.

     

    Also:  in general,
    consequentialist challenges (whether focusing on the least well-off or not) to self-ownership
    are going to come in two forms, depending on whether the claim is one about
    normal situations or abnormal situations. 
    Some challenges are going to claim that self-ownership and consequentialism
    diverge so all-pervasively as to require a principle of a fundamentally different
    structure across the board.  I take it
    that on the basis of libertarian social theory we can dismiss those challenges;
    in particular, we can be confident that considerations of self-ownership will in
    normal situations favour the Small over the Great. 

     

    The other challenges are going to be ones that argue on consequentialist
    grounds for special exceptions, in abnormal situations, to
    rules that will ordinarily apply; some of these calls for exceptions can
    themselves be dismissed on rule-consequentialist grounds (for the familiar
    Humean “seditious bigot” reasons), but presumably not all of them
    will be.  Call the ones that survive the
    Potentially Licit Exceptions (PLEs). 
    Then the dialectical task will be to construct the content of justice so
    as to satisfy these PLEs as far as possible while also satisfying the initial
    prima facie deontic content of justice.  A
    likely upshot of this will be that in emergency situations, when the unmodified
    deontic side would say “don’t steal food” and the unmodified
    consequentialist side would say “steal food,” the dialectical
    synthesis will say “steal food, subject to an obligation to reimburse the
    owners when possible.”  In other
    words, rules for abnormal situations will have in prospect a return to normalcy.

     

    How all this applies to your case will depend both i) on the
    details of the theory of justice, which I’ve left underdescribed, and ii) on
    the details of the empirical situation, which you’ve left underdescribed.

    • berserkrl

      Argh!  Sorry about the formatting.

      • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

        Fixed it. For future reference, you can always edit your own comments by going to to disqus.com. I actually find that website a better way to keep up with comments on the blog than looking at the blog itself.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Can you walk me through an argument for self-ownership in part based on the fact that institutionalizing it would benefit the least well-off? I’m having a hard time thinking it through. Is the idea that its benefiting the least well-off is a reason to think it is true? A reason to think it superior to alternative principles? 

        • berserkrl

          Self-ownership starts off as the default content of justice, but potentially subject to revision in a consequentialist direction from the need to be consistent with other virtues such as benevolence and fairness.  But in fact self-ownership scores high enough on all plausible conceptions of consequentialism that the amount of revision needed is minimal.  More in my latest post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wiebe/1440756026 Michael Wiebe

    Kevin, how do you see your thought experiment to be different from Feinberg’s cabin story?

  • Anonymous

    Keven I think your effort to illustrate the difference between BHL and other libertarian views was fairly good, but also think thought experiments as the medium for communications problematic. 

    My biggest difficulty with your thought experiment is that the so rice of the problem is not well understood but we’re to assume that some form of wealth — and specifically financial wealth in the example — is the solution to the problem.

  • Haytham Yaghi

    I just thought of an extension to the scenario. Obviously, in order to get the cops to repress the Smalls, they have to get paid for it. And if the Smalls step up their protests, more cops have to be hired and more funding is needed. It seems odd that the Greats would be ok in paying more taxes to fund the cops but not to provide better welfare for the Smalls? What if the cost was the same for the same outcome (it costs as much to hire more cops as to fund better welfare for the same outcome of social stability)?

  • http://profiles.google.com/kdhall61 Kenneth Hall

    The initial occupation by the Small, whether it was “nonviolent” or otherwise, constitutes a violation of property rights — an aggression against the owners of the bank. Having (one assumes) declined to vacate on request by the owners, the Occupiers are now, whether they care to recognize it or not, in a fight.

    There’s a thing about a fight:  One should be really circumspect about starting one, because first (the deontological plank, if one will) it’s morally out of bounds, and second (the consequentialist plank, if one must), the risk one always runs when one starts a fight: the possibilit, depending on how things go from there, that the other guy will get to finish it — on his terms.

  • Anonymous

    This is completely off topic, but I am slowly working my way through Gaus’ The Order of Public Reason and I have a few thoughts.

    Suppose that a social practice emerged that led people to disvalue parenting and thus to forebear from having children. Also, this social practice enabled all individuals to lead peaceful, prosperous, and valuable lives. Suppose also that at some point all of humanity comes to engage in this practice, thus leading all of humanity to
    disvalue parenting and cease having children. As a result, this practice leads to a point where humanity eventually dies out: the human species goes extinct, but in the process all individuals lead valuable lives, maximizing goal and desire satisfaction.

    The question is this: if a social practice were to lead to all people living valuable lives but also to the extinction of humanity, what is the moral status of such a practice? Is extinction a moral bad? Why (or why not)? Particularly on a contractarian account of social morality, why should I care about human extinction? What does/doesn’t this say about the normative significance of evolutionary stories (such as found in chapter 3 of Gaus, The Order of Public Reason)?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Gardner/100003393676310 Keith Gardner

    Huh?

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  • anarchobuddy

    I hope I am not writing in violation of the “Pre-emptive Remarks” but I really question whether such a stark distinction between haves and have-nots will last long in a completely free market. I think this is an important point.

    As an illustration, I was not impressed with David Friedman’s critique of property rights as the basis of a legal order. He gave hypothetical situation of choosing between respecting private property and letting the world get hit by an asteroid or taking a briefcase that had the button to destroy the asteroid without permission. If one would choose the latter, this would show that property rights aren’t ultimate. But by being able to stipulate scenarios of complete fantasy, one could construct counter-examples to any theory of ethics.

    Now, I’m not stating that the given scenario is pure fantasy, but if it is presenting a situation which characterizes markets with outcomes that are unrealistic, then I think it is forcing us into making false choices.

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