Matt Zwolinski asks that question in a post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and answers it by positing three types of bleeding-heart libertarian:
Contingent BHLs – This group has what might be described as standard right-libertarian views for standard right-libertarian reasons. They believe that the state should more-or-less be constrained to the protection of negative liberty…. However, the fact that a libertarian state is good for the poor and vulnerable does not play an essential justificatory role for this group. Libertarian institutions are justified independently and sufficiently on the basis of rights and/or consequences, and would still be justified even if they were not good for the poor and vulnerable….
Anarchist Left BHLs – …I sometimes have a bit of a hard time pinning this position down. At times, it seems to be little more than right-anarchist-libertarianism combined with some distinctive empirical beliefs about the effects and characteristic functioning of markets and the state. Morally, anarchist Left BHLs seem to have pretty standard libertarian views about self-ownership and the ownership of external property and, like Rothbard but unlike Nozick or Rand, conclude from these premises that all states are morally unjustifiable. What sets them apart from right-Rothbardians seems mainly to be empirical beliefs about the extent to which contemporary capitalism is the product of and dependent on unjust government support, and about the extent to which the poor and working classes would be made especially better off in a stateless society….
Strong BHLs – Finally, there is my own preferred view – a view that I suspect is not too far off from the kind of view held by Jason Brennan. The most important aspect of this view, and the aspect that distinguishes it from both the positions above, is that it holds that libertarian institutions depend in part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable….
Put me in the “contingent BHL” camp, for reasons that will become evident.
I am not a fan of anarchist-left libertarianism, which makes a fetish of its opposition to “contemporary capitalism” — a.k.a. “crony capitalism.” But what kind of libertarian would favor crony capitalism? None, that I can think of. So, I take a so-called libertarian’s opposition to “contemporary capitalism,” as posturing. Further, “unjust government support” extends not only to “contemporary capitalism” but also to “the poor and working classes” — among many others — and so it is impossible to say that “the poor and working classes” are the victims of “contemporary capitalism.” It could well be the other way around. I have no doubt that “the poor and working classes” are the victims of the economic retardation caused by heavy-handed government. But that heavy-handedness has much to do with programs that are meant to favor the “poor and working classes” (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, other forms of welfare, progressive income-tax rates, and a vast array of paternalistic regulations).
What about “strong BHLs,” who (according to Zwolinski) hold that “libertarian institutions depend on part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable”? Here is how Zwolinski explains it, in an interview to which he links:
So to see if you kind of qualify as a bleeding heart libertarian in that strong sense, try a thought experiment. Suppose that all the critics of libertarianism were right about the empirical claims that they make: that markets are rife with failures, they tend to cause the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, that this leads to the exploitation of workers by capitalists. If all those claims were really true, and libertarians don’t believe that they are, but suppose they were. Would you then still be a hardcore libertarian? If the answer to that is no, then I think you might be a bleeding heart libertarian.
Zwolinski takes a purely consequentialist position, as if liberty is not a value in and of itself, even to the “poor” and “workers.”
Beyond that, he takes a “liberal” (i.e., statist) position. I say that because, where markets are truly free, a “market failure” can mean only one thing: an outcome that “liberals” (and Zwolinski, evidently) judge to be “incorrect” by some arbitrary standard. And to be “exploited” is to sell one’s services at a wage below the wage that a “liberal” judges to be “correct,” again by some arbitrary standard.
And if market outcomes are “incorrect,” it is logically necessary to to correct them by enforcing a regime of “positive liberty,” whether or not Zwolinski wants to admit it. This requires statist interventions that are aimed at producing certain market outcomes, so that the (arbitrarily defined) “poor” and “workers” are made better off. And how can they made better off? By (arbitrarily) defining “correct” outcomes and constraining markets so that certain types of otherwise voluntary exchange cannot take place, or can take place but only on dictated terms.
If a truly libertarian regime would, in fact, result in “the rich” getting richer and “the poor” getting poorer, that would say something about the relative value of the goods and services brought to the market by “the rich” and “the poor.” It would be an indictment of libertarianism only if one adheres to the dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Now, where have I heard that?
Zwolinski, in so many words, admits that he is not a libertarian, by any reasonable definition of libertarianism. By the same token, he admits that he is a “liberal,” and therefore presumes himself qualified to stand in judgment over the affairs of others.
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Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
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Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
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A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”