I’ve been re-reading Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty in preparation for a seminar I’m teaching this semester on contemporary libertarian philosophical thought. It’s probably been at least ten years since I last read it, long before I ever started thinking about libertarianism in bleeding heart terms. So a lot of things that didn’t make much of an impression on me before are really jumping out at me on this reading.
It is striking, for instance, just how frequently Rothbard makes a special point of emphasizing the ways in which the state hurts the poor. Here’s a sample:
- “…it is clear that the practice of bail discriminates against the poor.” (109)
- “The law of libel, of course, discriminates … against the poor.” (117)
- “It is becoming recognized that urban renewal programs, supposedly designed to aid the slum housing of the poor, in fact demolish their housing and force the poor into more crowded and less available housing, all for the benefit of wealthier subsidized tenants, construction unions, favored real estate developers, and downtown business interests.” (197)
- “The existence of the public school also means that unmarried childless couples are coerced into subsidizing families with children…This means, too, that poor single people and poor childless couples are forced to subsidize wealthy families with children. Does this make any ethical sense at all?” (164)
- “There is increasing evidence that, certainly in the case of public higher education, the coerced subsidy is largely in the direction of forcing poorer citizens to subsidize the education of the wealthier! … Hence a net redistribution of income from the poorer to the richer via the public college! Where is the ethical justification here?” (169)
Why are these quotes interesting? Because for someone like Rothbard who thinks that libertarianism is justified on grounds of self-ownership alone, none of this ought to matter. If public schools are immoral for Rothbard, it’s because they are coercive. And because they are coercive, we should seek to abolish them regardless of whether they hurt the poor or help them. The same goes for welfare, urban housing, anti-libel laws, and so on.
But if the consequences of these policies on the poor don’t matter, why does Rothbard spend so much time talking about them? Is it just empty rhetoric, intended to make libertarianism palatable to the squishy left?
I don’t think so. I think Rothbard really thought that the way state policies affect the poor mattered. And mattered in a way that was morally significant.
Notice what he does in those last two items on the list. In both cases, he points out that a state policy actually helps the rich at the expense of the poor. And then he seems to express a kind of moral shock. What on earth kind of moral principle could justify that kind of coercion? You don’t see him expressing that same kind of shock and puzzlement with other sorts of coercive policies – ones that actually do take from the rich and give to the poor.
He still thinks that those kind of policies are wrong of course. But that’s the thing. You can think that all cases of coercion are wrong and still think that there’s something especially wrong with coercive policies that help the rich and hurt the poor. In the same way that breaking someone’s leg is worse than punching him in the arm, using coercion to help the rich is worse than using coercion to help the poor. All of these acts are coercive, and hence impermissible. But some impermissible acts are morally worse than others.
Does that make Rothbard a Bleeding Heart Libertarian? Well, I’m a big-tent kind of guy when it comes to BHL, so I say “yes.” Rothbard’s not exactly advocating for social justice here. And maybe he’d bite the bullet and say that even if the poor would be much, much worse off without the state, we would still be morally required to abolish it. Fiat justicia ruat caelum. But recognizing that the way our policies affect the poor and vulnerable matter enough to strengthen the case against the state is at least a good start. Recognizing that in some cases those same considerations might conceivably weaken it would be the next.