As Andrew mentioned, both of us were on a panel about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism this week. Since he has posted his comments, and the blog has recently been buzzing with discussions about social justice, I thought I would post my comments as well. Here are some remarks about what motivated me to think of myself as a Bleeding Heart Libertarian.
Libertarians have Bleeding Hearts when they accept a certain necessary condition for justice. This is the condition that the least well off in society live on terms that are morally equivalent to the terms on which the better off live. That is, for a Bleeding Heart Libertarian, a society is just only if it treats the least well off morally the same as it treats the better off. Thus, like Matt writes, if it really were true that a free society worked to the detriment of the least well off, I would cease to be a libertarian.
This condition gives content to the way Bleeding Heart Libertarians care about social justice. So let’s call this the BHL-condition. How precisely to spell out the details of this condition is subject to disagreement. But the main idea, I believe, is one all Bleeding Hearts share.
So far so familiar, I guess. Yet the reasons for my endorsement of the BHL-condition are somewhat different from some of my co-bloggers. I am a Bleeding Heart Libertarian because of the importance I ascribe to treating people as right-holders. In my view, we cannot fully respect people as morally equal, free, and autonomous human beings unless we respect them as right-holders.
This is because the central function of rights is that they endow their possessors with the ability to say “no” to proposed interactions. If this is your house, I cannot enter it without your permission. If you have a right over your body, I cannot use it without your permission. And so on. (Whether the ability to say “no” is a necessary condition of being a right-holder is a different question, one on which I do not take a stance here.)
Rights, as I see it, are a direct implication of our moral equality. They ensure that, among equals, no one has the authority to tell others how to live. They ensure that, among equals, there are no natural bosses. Rights are also a direct implication of our moral freedom. As right-holders, we have decision-making authority over parts of the social world. And the possession of rights ensures that our decisions, and not those of others, will be determinative within these protected parts of the world. You get to decide what happens in your house. I get to decide what happens to my body.
The BHL-condition, as I see it, is a consequence of the demand that everyone in society is respected in the way right-holders ought to be respected. There are two ways in which this link can be made.
(1) The BHL-condition as a heuristic
This first motivation for the BHL-condition is as an evidentiary condition. If people are in fact respected as right-holders, we can expect that, as a rule (although not always), they will interact with others in ways that they consider beneficial. As a rule, then, a society in which people are respected as rights-holders will be one in which our interactions are positive-sum interactions. They foster win-win relationships. If such a society works the way it should, it will be one in which all of us can flourish together, living side by side. It will be a place in which everyone benefits from cooperation.
So when we observe the world we live in and see (when we do) that certain groups in society are not benefiting from social cooperation, this should give us pause. It is good evidence that they are not being treated in the way rights-holders ought to be treated. It is evidence that they are not able to enter into mutually beneficial interactions. In such a society we might look around to see if, say, resources are coercively extracted or withheld from people at the bottom to pay the bills of those with better political connections.
(2) The possibility-proof of social justice
The other motivation is more philosophical. If one is going to be a libertarian, I think one should be a Bleeding Heart Libertarian because (contrary to what Mark LeBar seems to think) a society that is purely rights-based could lead to unjust results even if no rights-violations occur. But a just society cannot contain injustices. So a just society cannot be purely rights-based.
The idea is this: suppose the world is exhaustively owned by private owners. And suppose that someone (let’s call him Dave) grows up and, upon becoming adult, has no property at all. Now Dave has to exist somewhere in the world. And because it’s exhaustively owned, this means Dave has to ask the owners for permission to enter their property. Suppose that every owner denies Dave access. In that case, Dave cannot but act in a way that violates someone’s property right.
The example is familiar,* but its implications are often overlooked by libertarians. The example constitutes a possibility-proof of a social injustice. For an injustice exists even though no one committed a wrong. The owners did Dave no wrong because, as right-holders, they were entitled to say “no” to Dave’s requests. And Dave did no wrong either, for Dave was a child until now. Nevertheless, Dave must violate someone’s property rights.
What is more, in this situation Dave is respected as neither a morally equal or morally free person. Dave is not a morally equal person because the other right-holders can effectively demand that Dave do as they wish. And he is not a morally free person because, lacking rights, Dave cannot exercise any control over a part of the social world.
Given that this is an injustice that arises through no individual wrongdoing, we may call this a social injustice. (Perhaps it is why Kevin calls it an emergent property of social interaction.) And it offers a fundamental motivation for the BHL-condition. As I said, it is a necessary condition of a just society that those on the bottom are treated on the same moral terms as the rest of society. They must be able to enjoy the same kind of rights as the rest. In the case of Dave this means he must own property in the external world. Without it, he is not fully respected as morally free and equal. Other people’s property rights, therefore, cannot protect them against takings that serve to give to Dave.
So if you think, with me, that individual rights matter. And if you think, with me, that respecting individuals means respecting them as rights-holders. Then you had better have a Bleeding Heart.
* The argument here should be familiar to anyone who has read the work of G.A. Cohen, or Hillel Steiner, or Eric Mack (and again). It also appears in Locke’s famous discussion of the “charity proviso” in the First Treatise.