Consequentialism, Libertarianism

BHL, Liberal-tarianism and Complicated Theories: A Reply to Doherty and Seavey

Brian Doherty has written a nice, thoughtful essay, “Can Libertarians Learn to Love Social Justice?” where he reviews some of the recent discussion about BHL and traditional-L over at Cato Unbound. He also discusses a much less kind essay by Todd Seavey. While Doherty disagrees with Seavey on a number of points, he agrees about the following:

But I certainly have a tendency to believe, as Seavey complains, that “complicating” libertarianism beyond property rights starts to create justifications for all sorts of troubling state action.

This is probably a core concern about the BHL project, insofar as there is such a project. By adding more justificatory elements to libertarian political theory, we run the risk of becoming statists, or so the thought goes. As Seavey says,

… how can the liberal-tarians dismiss those libertarians who fear de-emphasizing property will quickly yield statism – when the liberal-tarians are living proof that watering down the property rights rule immediately (sometimes in the same sentence!) spawns talk of redistribution and government welfare provision?

Seavey runs together liberaltarianism with BHL. In my mind, they’re quite different. “Strong” BHL postulates, at a minimum, that the justification for libertarian institutions depends on how well the least well-off live in those institutions. This dependence relation need not lead to the view that the least well-off have special priority or to abandoning the importance of property rights. The point is simply to make libertarian deontology more consequence-sensitive. Liberaltarianism, on the other hand, is more of a policy prescription that combines deregulated markets with a generous social safety net. But the connection between BHL and liberaltarianism is contingent and empirical.

And that’s what makes Seavey’s next claim so weird:

And this is why – as a rule-utilitarian (and not a deontologist) – I don’t want people to treat property as just one mushy value amongst other mushy values (parliamentarianism, feminism, whatever).

In effect, Seavey claims that by making deontology consequence-sensitive, we might end up justifying statism. But rule-utilitarianism tells us to get people to be property rights absolutists. Why? Well, because that will produce the best consequences, which is the ultimate test for whether libertarian institutions are justified. So what gives? Yes, some BHLs are liberaltarians. Yes, some BHLs think that welfare state institutions better help the least well-off. But guess what? So do some rule-utilitarians.

I think what we see with Doherty (nice) and Seavey (not nice) is that awkward mix of deontological and utilitarian moral concerns so intuitive to libertarians. Seavey’s a self-identified utilitarian. Yet he wants to treat property rights as absolutes. But what could be the justification for this? Contingent empirical fact. From my understanding, Doherty is closer to the natural rights/self-ownership position, though I could be wrong. But he is still worried that BHL theories might lead to “troubling state action” if they get “too complicated.” But why is state action troubling? Well, for one thing, state action leads to bad consequences.

In the end, Seavey and Doherty share the intuitive sense that both consequences and deontology matter. But we think that too. For me, BHL is about finding at least one theory that properly and attractively integrates the two sources of moral concern. The BHL project is complicated because finding the right mix of consequences and deontology is complicated.

That’s one reason most libertarians don’t pursue it, precisely because they think the answers are easy, or at least they want the folk to think the answers are easy. But we’re interested in the true and objectively best way to bring these points together.

And without such a theory, we can’t even make full sense of Doherty and Seavey’s part-consequentialist/part-deontological concerns about the BHL project.

Published on:
Author: Kevin Vallier
  • Patrick Barton

    I think you’re right, this stuff is very complicated.  All the more reason to question the immediate appropriation of BHL (as if it’s a coherent project, or, as you say, even a project yet at all) by many (particularly young) non-academic libertarians for their own strategic gains.  BHL is bizarrely carried like a shield into DC happy hour conversations. While BHL is an important, perhaps necessary response to tensions and challenges related to modern liberalism within the sub-discipline of political philosophy, many libertarians (who probably don’t even regularly read the blog, let alone having ever read many of the foundational texts BHL engages) use it like a weapon in their sectarian battles with other libertarians.  It’s become a rather oppressive thought-policing tool.  This isn’t BHL’s fault, and not something this blog needs to respond to.  But it’s worth you guys knowing.  Just as it’s worth Doherty pointing out that: “McCobin hints at something that I know a lot of people think
    about the bleeding-heart libertarian project: that it’s a way for
    intellectuals who feel a need to get along with liberals and
    progressives to not feel the stink of the conservative or
    right-wing around them as they make their libertarian arguments.”

    •  “BHL is bizarrely carried like a shield into DC happy hour conversations.”

      This made me laugh. I’m not doubting you or anything, but there’s just something a little bizarre about this to me. Maybe I haven’t been to enough DC happy hours…

    • Interesting point, Patrick. But it can also be that it is a way for libertarians who never felt comfortable with the ‘conservative’ label to begin with articulate why they believe libertarian owes as much to liberal as conservative values. I think, for instance, that the work Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi are doing regarding the history of how libertarians HAVE often been motivated by the same concern for the poor that motivates many left liberals is really refreshing. 

      So, certainly BHL can be a purely rhetorical tactic – a trojan horse, if you will, that allows libertarians to get along with progressives by convincing them that we share certain aims in common. But, at least personally speaking, the “BHL project” is a way to articulate many of the concerns I, as a libertarian, have had for some time and to stop the moving train of libertarianism from going so far into the absolultist property-rights or concening itself too little with the least well-off. 

      • 3cantuna

        The “absolutist” property charge is likely projection hiding apologies for an underlying absolutist view on the state. It is a given that humans will have property– control of resources at the very least.  Removing legitimacy from individuated non-government property does not somehow kill control over resources. It puts it in the hands of those in control of a government, no?  Tomasi and Zwolinski seem to mean a state form in their writing. Yet, why would property have to be characterized as this, all or nothing?  I see no logical necessity in a BHL claim for political permanency, monopoly if you will. Competition is good.

  • “…complicating libertarianism beyond property rights”

    To be really, really blunt, anyone who imagines property rights is and should be the entire scope of libertarianism is a “mushy” single-issue crank.

    I’ll go a step further and say that anyone who imagines his single issue is so transcendent it shouldn’t and indeed can’t be mistaken for other any other single issue is exactly the kind of mushy single-issue crank he wishes to distinguish himself from.

    Also I flatly disagree with his position!  The essence of libertarianism is acknowledgement and (mutual and therefore political) defense of personal autonomy and agency, a.k.a. liberty.  An individual agent may own property and to claim inalienable rights to it.  Thus property rights can be derived from liberty.  On the other hand, even in Jaruzelski’s pre-Solidarność Poland individuals had property rights.  It therefore it goes without saying that autonomy, agency, or liberty can be derived from the simple fact of property ownership.

    Going a step further, I happened to be reviewing old family documents over the weekend and was reminded again that in the not too distant past people themselves were property, and my ancestors were pretty darn put out by the proposition that their property themselves might have inalienable rights to liberty, let alone the prospect that they would have to provide that liberty to what they always genteelly referred to as “our people.”

    Now that doesn’t mean Doherty shouldn’t argue on behalf of an ideology obsessed with property rights to the exclusion of everything else.  But he’s mislabeling his position by calling it “libertarianism” and his objection to use of the term for any other purpose is offensive.


  • Damien S.

    I turned a previous comment into a related blog post.   Currently I’m thinking that almost everyone is an implicit or backup consequentialist.  Hardly anyone advocates policies they think will make people worse off in ways they are about.  (Or if they do, as in someone trying to loot society, they don’t admit it.)  But very few people take consequentialism and empiricism as primary guides; rather they follow moral instinct, deontology, tradition, authority, virtue ethics, or more, leaving them to try to find consequentialist support for whatever it is they already want to believe in.  This of course can be expected to have a distorting effect on their empirical accuracy.

  • Doherty and Seavey believe that ‘“complicating” libertarianism beyond property rights starts to create justifications for all sorts of troubling state action.’

    Maybe it is just my Oakeshottean bias here, but I have always been suspicious of uncomplicated social theories. What Doherty and particularly Seavey seem to want is a social theory that is simple and absolute, such that we can apply this theory as society’s basic organizing principle, never having to fear that we will need to tweak, modify, or supplement it anytime in the future. Property rights…. and that is that. 

    Now, as to Kevin’s (I think very correct) notion that we libertarians have a somewhat divided intuition that values both deontological rights and utilitarian consequences, neurophilosopher Joshua Green has recently written (in his dissertation) on reasons why we often feel divided between wanting to value deontic rights, but also take consequences into account when deciding what to do – I believe he calls it a “dual process” theory. Essentially, two different modules in the brain (and I’m sure it involves more than two) are at work, and at odds. As he describes it, the deontological part of us is based on more ‘gut level’ emotional responses, and consequentialist thinking is found in the areas of our brain built for more reasoned response. 

    The reason I bring that up is that I think Green is perfectly correct in describing most of our moral psychology, and by extension, I am skeptical of anyone who wants to create a social theory that boils all decisions down to one of these two considerations (say, rule utilitarianism, or deontological considerations). Doing that may seem neat and tidy, but neat and tidy is not the way the human brain, and thus the social landscape brains give rise to, are. So, saying that the problem with liberal-tarianism is that it gets complicated, so complicated that state action could possibly be justified, is not, to my ears, an argument AGAINST liberal-tarianism or BHL. To my mind, the fact that liberal-tarians like Tomasi seem unwilling to construct a simple algkorithmic social theory, and their acknowledgement that there are a plurality of concerns when creating a viable social theory, is a virtue.

  • Here’s another thought, and I’d like to hear other’s take on it. Doherty is concerned that extending libertarianism beyond property rights might complicate things in a way that makes certain non-libertarian state action justifiable. 

    But can’t we also see some danger in absolutizing property rights as possibly leading to the ‘justification’ of possible cases of great suffering? (I mean, for all us minimal-staters, an absolute absolutizing of property rights means no government at all, yes?, and it is at least arguable that complete absence of government has the potential to cause suffering. Also , we might think of a case where there is a town, city, or state, that is horribly racist, and all white producers/employers absolutely refuse to cater to non-whites. Can it be argued in that case that strict adherence to property rights causes more suffering than passage of a law which to some degree tells those producers who they may not exclude from their property?)

    So, if Doherty is going to bring up a slippery slope argument, can’t we come right back and (if you will) suggest that not recognizing a slope (when there is a slope)  at all contains dangers of its own?

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