Some dude name Todd Seavey thinks bleeding heart libertarianism is evil. See here and here. I’ve read those two posts a few times, and my most charitable reconstruction of his argument against BHL goes as follows:
- Therefore, BHL is wrong and evil. [From 1-3.]
From his posts, I can see alternative interpretations of his main argument (e.g., some professor at Brown annoyed him, so therefore BHL is evil), but I believe in being charitable. None of the alternative reconstructions of his argument are more plausible than the one posted above.
In Bryan Caplan’s thread on this here, there’s a useful comment from David Friedman:
My complaint about the BHL, as may be obvious from the exchanges now going on, is that they insist that social justice ought to be part of libertarianism but are unwilling to tell us what it means. As far as I can judge by observations of usage, “social justice” means “ideas of justice that appeal to left wingers,” and its practical implication is the rule that, with regard to any issue at all, the first question to ask is how it affects the poor.
Part of me wonders whether this is deliberative obtuseness. Libertarians often adopt an (ineffective) rhetorical strategy from Hayek: Whenever someone says “social justice”, respond that you don’t know what she is talking about. I think it’s weird for David Friedman to say he doesn’t know what we’re talking about, since we’ve defined the term many times here. Let’s define it again.
Here’s a rather generic definition:
Social justice is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.
What makes neoclassical liberals distinct from hard libertarians?
Neoclassical liberals believe just social institutions must tend to benefit all, especially the most vulnerable members of society. Neoclassical liberals believe that liberal market societies are the best means to realize the goals of social justice. They advocate a high growth free market economy—with minimal barriers to entry, few or no immigration and labor restrictions, and little regulation—in part because they regard this as the way to fight poverty.
But, the hard libertarian objects, doesn’t a commitment to social justice automatically entail a commitment to an extensive welfare state? No, as I explained here.
What does a commitment to social justice actually mean? Well, partly it depends upon what particular theory of social justice you endorse. But Kevin Vallier and I like to illustrate it via counterfactuals. See here (Kevin) and here (me). I’ll quote and slightly modify my own post because it’s shorter.
I have a thought experiment for you.
This is directed at libertarians…
Imagine that your empirical beliefs about economics have been disconfirmed. Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling evidence that life in a strictly libertarian polity would go badly. Imagine that they showed conclusively that if people everywhere were to live in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist civil society, with everyone strictly observing property right rules, that 10% of people would starve (through no fault of their own), 80% would be near subsistence (through no fault of their own), and only 10% would prosper. However, imagine that they also show that in a liberal social democracy with significant redistribution or social insurance, most people would prosper, just as many people living in such welfare states are doing pretty well right now.
If you are a hard libertarian, you respond to this thought experiment by saying, “Well, that’s too bad things turned out that way. But, still, everyone did the right thing by observing property rights, and they should continue to do so.” (If you are bad at understanding thought experiments, you say, “That’s unrealistic.” In response, see here.)
If you have at least some concern for social justice, you respond by saying, “If that happened, that would be strong grounds to change the economic regime. In that kind of society, it’s unreasonable to ask people to observe the basic institutions and rules. They have a legitimate complaint that the rules works as if they were rigged against them. Perhaps we’d need to tweak property rights conventions. Perhaps we’d even need some sort of redistribution, if that’s what it took.”
When you see what social justice is really all about, you realize how it’s a rather low stakes item ideologically. Yes, certain conceptions of social justice are incompatible with a commitment to property rights and economic liberty. (Fortunately, those conceptions are wrong, or so I would argue.) But it’s pretty easy for classical liberals to adopt some conception of social justice. That’s one reason why it’s so damaging to the “ism” when they reject it. They appear to say, “Property rights, no matter what, thought the sky falls.”
Yet once they admit that we shouldn’t respect property rights thought the sky falls, then the question is just to what degree the legitimacy of property rights depends on how well they serve innocent people’s interests.
You might think that BHL is rather statist, especially after reading Tomasi’s book. One commentator on Caplan’s blog said that BHL’ers just have a weak grasp of public choice. (I’m rather confident that doesn’t apply to me.) I’m more or less an anarchist, for what that’s worth.
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