I recently had a discussion with another libertarian philosopher who thought “bleeding heart libertarianism” made no more sense then “stoney hearted libertarianism.” Needless to say, I’m not convinced. The issue is whether or not all libertarians are committed to the same thing; if they are, the modifiers are unimportant. Of course, no one thinks all libertarians must agree about everything. Even the regular contributors to BHL disagree amongst ourselves about a variety of issues. The question is this: is there some core belief of bleeding heart libertarianism that unites all BHLs and which other libertarians reject (but that does not undermine our being libertarians)? I frankly remain unsure but offer the following for your consideration. (Consider this an attempt to motivate BHL and a statement of gratitude that BHL is now a thing.)
There are different moral groundings of libertarianism. BHLs duplicate—and perhaps add to—the ways others defend libertarianism. There are natural rights libertarians, eudaimonist libertarians, consequentialist libertarians, public reason libertarians and more. If there is some core belief that unifies these, its likely about the way society should be set up. Indeed, I think BHLs agree with (all?) other libertarians about the basics of that. I think what unifies BHLs and distinguishes us from other libertarians is a view about the sorts of considerations—including facts on the ground, as it were—that are thought relevant when determining how a society should be set up.
A little autobiographical commentary might help here. As a philosophy grad student (way back when), I probably disagreed with as much said at libertarian conferences and seminars as I did in my home department (but appreciated the very different sorts of discussions that emerged). To make that a bit more concrete, I had the impression that most participants (faculty and students) at such gatherings were registered as, or voted for, Republicans (if they voted at all). By contrast, I grew up in what I thought of (and still think of) as a “middle-middle class” household of Democrats and while I never really identified as a Democrat, I certainly never identified as a Republican. (I vote; I enjoy voting; I may vote slightly more for Democrats than for Republicans, but I never vote party line, sometimes vote for third party candidates, never care if I vote for someone for every open office, and frequently vote strategically rather than for a candidate I actually like—not that there are many of those.) The world we live in always struck me as unfair and I never thought the U.S. was a society of equal opportunity (yes, I think equal opportunity, properly defined, is required for fairness and justice). I didn’t see Republicans even pretending to offer anything to make the world fairer; Democrats did (at least pretend to). The impression I got at libertarian gatherings when I was a graduate student was that many of the participants thought the world was fair and that there was equal opportunity in the U.S. There seemed to be little recognition, for example, that minorities and women were often treated unfairly and that they had fewer opportunities (this has since changed, but not completely).
So, here’s the thing. While I am not certain there is something distinctive to bleeding heart libertarianism (such that it is different from other versions of libertarianism), I think there is—because I think there is something distinctive of bleeding heart libertarians. All of us care about the plight of the less fortunate. As I put it a couple of years ago, BHL is “a family of libertarian (and hence liberal) views that also share a deep concern to prevent suffering.” This does not mean that we think socialism is a move forward or that more welfare policies are needed. It means only that we care about the less fortunate and think the world should be set up in a way that the least well off (whomever they would be) are as well off as possible. (Yes, that’s Rawls, but it’s at least as important that we all endorse the free market and are eager to consider what empirical economic science—as well as economic theory—has to teach us.)
Some further autobiography. It may be that I would have written in defense of libertarianism no matter how good the world was. But I also know this about myself: if our society was set up in such a way that the only government transfers were from those with much to those with little or nothing, I would not be nearly as motivated to oppose it. It’s not exactly that I think government transfer programs of any sort are good; it’s rather that some—those that help individuals in poverty or victims of abuse—simply do not bother me (unless they make things worse). What bothers me are government programs that help those already well off—like bailing out big banks, paying to build sports stadiums, starting wars so weapons can be bought from big companies and/or so big oil companies can continue to get their raw product, building roads to stores instead of letting them bare the costs, and the list goes on (see here). But I can’t get motivated to oppose (unless the intent is somehow malicious or the program demonstrably self-defeating) giving those in poverty food stamps to feed young children, setting up financial incentives for people to foster or adopt children that were previously abused by their birth parents, or having programs to help badly off people that have been harmed but can’t get compensation from the criminal that caused the harm. I’ve met many people who claim to be libertarians who do—or at least seem to—oppose such things. Indeed, people who claim to oppose them *as* libertarians. Perhaps that is changing (I think it is). If so, great; that would mean there are fewer stoney-hearted libertarians. But both because I think there are still SHLs out there and, perhaps as importantly, because I know there are lots of people that think all libertarians are SHLs, I think this blog—and others like it—have an important role to play. I think we are helping to change the conversation so that libertarians are coming to be seen as true heirs to classical liberals (and truly progressive).*
I should note—though I hope its obvious—that I would prefer a world where government programs of the sorts just mentioned (social welfare programs) were not necessary. A world where birth parents never abused children. A world where everyone could afford to pay for food for their children. But that isn’t this world. Indeed, I think there are systemic issues in our very non-libertarian world that make it such that those programs are needed. But the programs we have that help the well-off? Those are neither needed nor acceptable. Of course, they don’t appeal to any real libertarians, stoney hearted or otherwise.
*Note that I do not say “the true heirs.”