BHL at ISFLC: Ask Us a Question

As Matt noted earlier, Sarah, Jason, and I will be doing a panel discussion on bleeding heart libertarianism at the International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington.  That session takes place on Saturday morning Feb. 16 at 10:00am.

We will each speak for a few minutes about our respective takes on bleeding heart libertarianism, and then devote the bulk of the time to taking questions.  We thought it would be interesting to solicit questions from our readers here at BHL as well as readers of the SFL blog and our various Facebook friends.  There will also be a chance for on-the-spot questions as well.

So consider this an invitation to offer up questions we might address.  You have three participants coming from very different disciplines (literature, philosophy, and economics), so here’s a chance to explore all kinds of issues.  Obviously we won’t get to them all, but feel free to leave questions here in the comments or over at SFL’s repost of this on their blog, or on our Facebook links.

For our SFL readers, we hope to see you there!

  • Here goes.

    What distinguishes BHLs from European-style welfare-statists? Is it just that their hearts do not bleed so much? Or that they put more emphasis on freedom? Or is there a principled demarcation that stops the one from shading off into the other? If there is a principled demarcation, is it simply that BHLs understand some economics, so they can see the counter-productiveness of the usual welfare-statist policy prescriptions? Or is it a difference of moral vision?

    • Sean II

      I’d like to see that same question in a different guise: “If tomorrow a BHL coalition came to power in Denmark, Australia, and Canada, what would really change? Would the average citizen see the results as anything other than a mere tweak to the established order? “

      • Well I would like to believe that at the very least the BHL’s would get rid of the obnoxious speech codes that exist in those countries.


      Right on, Danny! At least for those BHLs who hold that a society must be “socially just” in order to be just, the basic structure, principles and elements of justice are essentially indistiguishable (in my opinion) from our high liberal friends. Its just that the BHLs have different empirical assumptions (as you say, they “understand some economics”) and they weigh the components of justice differently. For example, property rights are more stringent and the requirements of equality less demanding than for high liberals. However, unless the BHLs can articulate convincing and principled reasons why their weights are right and those assigned by more egalitarian theorists are wrong, then one view slides into the other, subject to empirical debates about whether, for example, the minimum wage, labor unions, etc. help or hurt the poor.

      • That might be useful for people to understand the basics of BHL, even though it may be philosophically unappealing: ask where BHL stands on some public policy issues.

        For instance:

        Does BHL support a minimum wage?

        Does BHL support public sector unions?

        Does BHL support entitlement reform, and if so, how?

        Does BHL support….

        You get the idea.

  • Sean II

    This is the type of lengthy question you’d just hate if someone asked it at a live event:

    A lot of libertarianism (bleeding heart and otherwise), depends on thought processes that are complex and frankly counter-intuitive. A libertarian hears that congress is about to pass C.A.B.A.L., “The Cheap & Abundant Bread Allocation Law”, and he knows at once that bread will – ultimately if not immediately – become more expensive and more scarce than it is now.

    But normal people don’t think like that. Some lack the capacity to begin with, but others simply don’t have the time and energy to go around worrying about such matters. They live in a world where, for the sake of efficiency, “Cheap and Abundant Bread” more or less needs to mean “cheap and abundant bread”. If it means anything other than that, they can’t be bothered to find out what or why. And for similar reasons, they find it perfectly convenient to believe that there is indeed some one person out there who knows how to make a pencil.

    It’s not much better with the ideas that are complex rather than counter-intuitive. Have you ever tried to talk about the trolley problem or the original position to someone who wasn’t a student or an intellectual? The effect is similar to what you might get if you went around accosting strangers on the street and demanding that they solve trigonometry problems for you. They just look at you, bewildered, not trying to find an answer, but desperately trying to figure out why would would be so rude, sadistic, and stupid as to waste their time with such nonsense.

    So here’s the question: All hopeful bullshit aside, isn’t libertarianism doomed to remain forever the faith of a small minority, made up of people from the right end of the IQ distribution, who in addition to that advantage, have the time and the inclination to indulge the theories and texts and fascinating little thought experiments that brought us all here?

    Isn’t libertarianism uniquely stunted in any attempt to grow up into a mass movement, because even when one of us manages to boil things down to a slogan – i.e., “maximizing individual liberty” – we ourselves will do the work of mercilessly tearing it apart?

    If libertarianism ever did go mainstream, wouldn’t it do so on the back of the very sloganeering and crude simplification we all hate? And would we still want anything to do with it, in that event?

    • Answer: Yes.

      • Sean II


        • I thought it was a sad yes.

          • Sean II

            It was of course, but the funny comes from the fact that “yes” works one way for my first three question, while having a very different meaning for the fourth question.

            That, plus it’s always funny when a 500 question gets a one-word answer.

    • Like herding cats. The very nature of a libertarian is to be skeptical of motives, wary of groups, and disdainful of leaders.

  • Dan Boches

    How does Bleeding Heart Libertarianism relate to the teachings of Adam Smith?

  • I think this is a simple question:

    Where do you think the most promising research areas and lively debates are within your respective disciplines?

  • Ash

    Several questions, answer any you like:

    What is the main goal(s) of BHL? And what are the driving principals that will lead to their attainment?

    How important are property rights as a means to achieving the ends of BHL? Would there be a time where it be just to forcibly take a person’s justly owned property in order to satisfy some other end?

    Do you believe in the non-aggression axiom? That is, that above all else, the initiation of violence is the most reprehensible blight on society?

    Does BHL have the answer to all moral questions? E.g., “should I have sex with this person I just met?”, “should I lend money to my alcoholic friend?”, “should I dodge the draft because I’m a pacifist?”, “my wife and I don’t get along, should we get a divorce or stay together for the sake of the children?”

    Should a BHL community support, villify, or be indifferent to a woman who wants to set the world record for having the most abortions?

    How much room for disagreement among moral issues would there be in a BHL society?

    Does BHL define the beginning of a human life at conception, at quickening, at viability, or at birth?

    How does BHL treat the problem of children? Can they own property? Can they run away? Can they consent to sex with adults?

    What about animal rights? Can someone kick a feral dog? What about kicking a dog they own? Can they force dogs to fight? Can people eat dogs? (Same with chickens, bovine, etc.) Do people have an obligation to adopt strays?

    Does someone who doesn’t prescribe to specific scientific theory be a BHL? Can a flat-earther, or climate change denier, or creationist, or alchemist, or Bayesian, or Monetarist be a BHL?

  • Pingback: Ask the Bleeding Hearts a Question At #ISFLC13! | Libertarios of America()

  • Q: “Is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism just libertarianism with welfare, or something more than that?”

    Q: “Is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism synonymous with both, or either, left-libertarianism or libertarian socialism?”

    Q: “If I come out as a Bleeding Heart Libertarian, will my Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist girlfriend dump me?”

    • Sean II

      Q: Do you guys know where Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist girls like to hang out?


        NOT with the anarcho-capitalist boys.

      • Oh yeah, they’re over in Booth 14, in the main hall. Right next to the raw milk guys.

    • JesseForgione

      I don’t know if she will, but she certainly should.

  • j_m_h

    What changes to our current political institutions are needed in order to promote the continuation if a libertarian government were ever established? Which changes would be required for a BHL government that would be at odds with other branches of market friendly libertarianism?

    I might also ask if you agree with Matt, libertarianism is a misnomer and is not really about liberty but about legitimate interference with one another via a political process? (putting some words in Matt’s mouth here but I think that’s his point.)

  • ThaomasH

    This may not be for BH libertarians exclusively, but I’m interested in knowing the kernel of the BHL position on how to deal with issues that seem to generate most of government regulation of the economy:

    1. externalities (water pollution or CO2 emissions produce costs that the polluter does not bear)

    2. economies of scale in protection (it is cheaper for the government to enforce food safety or provide crime prevention than for each household to provide its own, particularly when private provision would also produce a positive externality)

    that is different from a right liberal who wants to use Pigovian taxes for the former and cost benefit analysis of the activities that arise from the latter and is aware that government action can be captured or corrupted for private benefit.

    • ThaomasH

      An adendum: What BHL principles would bear on the rate of progression of a comprehensive consumption tax?

  • Kevin

    What I’ve read about BHL has been abstract, suggesting that we could make laws that would increase social justice without infringing liberty and justice, but I have not come across actual examples of this. Would you please provide some?

    More generally, like many here, I’m looking for specific practical cases to distinguish BHLs from libertarians in general.

  • Chris Platz

    It seems fair to say that many people who would otherwise be our allies are put off by the tone of some libertarians. Similarly, many of us are put off by the tone as well as the arguments of those on the left.

    Are you concerned with introducing the left’s humorlessness and conversational obnoxiousness (“That subject’s not funny!”; “That data point shouldn’t matter to you!”; “Why are you focusing on things other than what I want to focus on???”) into the liberty movement?

    • No surprise that they don’t want to touch this one.

      • The questions are to be answered at the International Students For Liberty Conference this next coming weekend, not here online. Whether or not a question gets answered is up to the discretion of the participants and time-permitting.

        • Brian Goetz

          Looks like Zak’s response answers the question, despite himself. 😉

  • Kelly Livin

    Do you agree with the sentiment that there exists in any society some number of people who either can’t or won’t ever contribute anything (sometimes by choice, sometimes by inability)? If so, do you think these people are (literally?) worthless? If not, what value do you perceive them as having, and to whom?

  • Kyle Walker

    Is libertarianism just a political theory or does being libertarian imply that you must hold certain non-political social values as well?

    For example, if someone wants to be a racist, an anti-semite, a “slut-shamer,” or some other paleoesque-type in their private life, does that preclude them from legitimately claiming to be a libertarian?

    Is the BHL reaction to these types primarily about marketing, i.e. it’s imprudent for libertarians to associate with these people because they make us look bad? Or is there some reason that these people do not count as libertarians in your sense of the term?

  • Kent Lalley

    It was announced just today in my hometown that work on a highway project ended some 40-years ago will resume today. This 4-lane divided highway was never completed with its ending point visibly stopping in the trees for all to see for the last several decades. Libertarians who have read Murray Rothbard’s “For A New Liberty” know there is a market for highway’s, with private roads being some of the best in early America and in England, and the government does not need to be involved. What are some of the ideas that come to your mind with this story? — Kent Lalley, OWL

  • Jod

    I would love to see a good bhl treatment of how to deal with climate change–beyond the assertion that we should stop subsidizing fossil fuels. This is the collective action problem par excellence.