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.