I had intended my first post-grading post to be about inheritance, but that will wait a bit. Instead, I thought it was time I helped defend BHL a bit.
Stephen Hicks makes “Five quick points against BHL,” all of which I think are pretty much false.
First, Hicks thinks BHL as a “political-philosophical method” divides people into 2 groups: the poor and the non-poor. I do not think BHL is a method at all. It is, rather, a family of substantive views in political philosophy–and most of us use the standard methods used by all political philosophers (perhaps especially in the English speaking world). I also do not think we are concerned with groups per se–I think all of us are normative individualists. We simply recognize that some individuals are poor and some are rich and that others fall in between. We all recognize, I think, that these categories are fluid and we (obviously) especially appreciate that unencumbered markets help people move from poverty to wealth.
Second, Hicks thinks our “moral principle is serving or benefiting others.” I believe he thinks this because some of us would apparently reject libertarianism if it could be shown that libertarianism makes people poor (or, more generally, makes more people worse off). As I’ve indicated here and here, I don’t quite hold that view, but I also don’t think that view justifies his claim since we are all in the “others” camp. Put differently, what would be rejected is a political system that makes people worse off, ourselves included. This isn’t about “serving or benefiting others,” its about “serving or benefiting” everyone–or at least not making anyone worse off. (Talk of the “least well-off” is a convenient way to discuss this.)
Third, Hicks thinks “BHL seems to make politics essentially or primarily about economics” because of its “focus” on the poor. This one has the greatest chance of being true, but as has been remarked, that focus on the poor has probably been over-emphasized recently. Still, its not a focus I think we should give up. We should be concerned, I think, with anything that makes people worse off–and it is not only economics that makes people better or worse off. Of course, some things that make people worse off are (at least plausibly) things we should not do anything about. But on my own view–and I think that of all BHLs–any government policy that makes people worse off is, on that basis a bad policy. A government policy, for example, that required everyone to wear 2 heavy sweaters regardless of the weather would clearly be rejected by any libertarian, including BHLs. Similarly, all libertarians, BHLs included, should be OK with criminal laws (or some suitable replacement system ) that prevented people from intentionally harming others, making them worse off. So too, I’ve argued that we should have a very different policy (a policy of social justice if ever there was one) about child-rearing. So, yes, we have a focus on poverty. But no, that should not be taken to mean we think politics is essentially about economics. (Still, clearly its a lot about economics–many of the bad government policies, after all, are ultimately due to economic influences.) (Another comment: while I see no reason to fear talking of “social justice,” I largely think the qualifier “social” is empty. What we are interested in on this blog is justice. Hence, Jason’s comments recently about immigration and mine about child-rearing, etc.)
Fourth, Hicks speculates that BHL may be a marketing strategy, meant to broaden the appeal of libertarianism by showing that we “have feelings and care.” Fifth and relatedly, Hicks speculates BHL might be a “rhetorical strategy to get lefties who dominate academic life to talk to us.” I frankly find both of these somewhat insulting (as well as already tired). While I don’t think these things are completely unimportant, I believe that the view being developed here (and elsewhere) is emerging with arguments at least as solid as any proposed by other libertarians (“hard libertarians,” “property absolutists,” or what-have-you)–and, indeed, at least as solid as any being developed by any political theorists. I also think, in fact, that this is precisely why non-libertarian academics are willing to listen to us. The arguments are rationally compelling. (That said, I admit that I have not offered anything close to a full defense of my own views, though I’ve held them for a long while now.)