Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists

A welcome to the readers of Jason Brennan’s “We Are Statists in Classical Liberal Clothing.” I have posted a response to Brennan (here). Thank you for visiting this blog.

I have been amused and somewhat bemused by the ongoing verbal war about bleeding-heart libertarians and bleeding-heart libertarianism (both BHL hereinafter). The main point of contention is the love of BHLs for “social justice.” The main  battlefields are the April 2012 issue of Cato Unbound* and most of the recent posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

I have assayed BHL elsewhere. Here are relevant excerpts of my earlier assessment:

Matt Zwolinski asks [What Is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism?] 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…. 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….

…Here is how Zwolinski explains [the strong BHL position], 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….

Note the circular reasoning: Libertarian institutions depend in part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable, but the libertarian institution of free markets “fails” because one result of free markets is that some persons make less than others, that is, they are necessarily “poor” by the usual, relative measure of “poorness” in the United States.

That most “poor” Americans are vastly better off than the abjectly impoverished denizens of much of Africa seems not to weigh on BHLs, who stand ready to exact “social justice” on behalf of their “poor” countrymen. That another libertarian institution — private charity (both organized and spontaneous) — can and does alleviate poverty (and other sufferings) seems to to missing from what is in fact a summary judgment against libertarianism. Libertarianism — advocacy of voluntary social and economic arrangements — is tainted, in the view of BHLs, if it does not also yield “social justice.”

The tension between liberty and “social justice” is the subject of the recently published  Free Market Fairness, written by John Tomasi. According to one review, Tomasi’s thesis is that the proverbial “we”

have been forced … to choose between social justice and economic freedom, often in reductive forms governed by moralistic absolutes. On one side is a frequently “bullying (and morally condescending)” left-liberalism; on the other an often “cold and heartless” libertarianism. It is widely thought, Mr. Tomasi says, that there can be “no common ground” between the two sides. The antagonists enter the fray believing that “when the dust settles, one side will win and the other will lose.”

Mr. Tomasi, a political theorist at Brown University, is unhappy with this stark choice. He confesses that he is attracted to the ideals of both camps. He also observes that much has changed since the 1970s. As we move into a postindustrial, Internet economy, it becomes increasingly clear that people of all income levels value the right to make economic choices. Yet most people also believe in something like social justice, supporting programs that adjust for inequalities.

With “Free Market Fairness,” Mr. Tomasi proposes an alternative to both points of view. He christens it “market democracy,” a mix of economic liberty and social justice that, in his view, supports a morally superior ideal than either the minimal state or welfare-state liberalism. Market democracy is not meant to be a mushy compromise or mere middle way, he says, but a “hybrid” that stands on its own merits.

Mr. Tomasi’s idea of a market democracy breaks with key ideas on both sides of the debate. First, he argues—against the socialist ethic of Rawls—that economic liberty is among the basic rights of individuals, as fundamental as the right to free speech. That is, we value economic liberty not merely for reasons of utility but for the ways in which it enables us to be the authors of our own lives. As Mr. Tomasi eloquently explains: “Restrictions of economic liberty, no matter how lofty the social goal, impose conformity on the life stories that free citizens might otherwise compose.”

Second, market democracy breaks with modern libertarian thinking by taking the claims of social justice seriously. Unlike Hayek, Mr. Tomasi does not believe that social justice is a mere will-o’-the-wisp. Nor does he believe that society is little more than the sum of private transactions. For Mr. Tomasi, society is “a public thing,” and thus all citizens should be able to affirm that its arrangements are fair. “A set of institutions is just,” he writes, reworking Rawls, “only if it works over time to improve the condition of the least well-off citizens.”

Market democracy recognizes that the question of social justice is a real one but without assuming that ordinary people don’t value economic liberty. Thus Mr. Tomasi believes that health care is a matter of social justice, but he prefers market-based approaches (with a safety net). “In seeking to benefit the least well off,” he says, “we must take care to do so in ways that respect the autonomy and dignity of those citizens.”

But he notes that economic liberty, as a triumphant principle, can lead to repellent results. To take a classic example, a person has no right to sell himself into slavery. Nor, Mr. Tomasi suggests, should the state sit idly by while sectors of society fall into grinding poverty and social dysfunction. The state has an obligation, he argues, to intrude upon laissez-faire arrangements so that “the exercise of responsible self-authorship” is possible.

It isn’t entirely clear how market democracy would function in the policy debates of the moment. Mr. Tomasi’s book is emphatically a work of political theory, not a blueprint for political action, much less a catalog of policy solutions. He does believe though that market democracy offers a way out of our either-or political debate, which at its extremes pits the Tea Party against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Market democracy would make the welfare of the very poor a top concern but would find little justice in mere wealth redistribution….

There is more specificity in Zwolinski and Tomasi’s lead essay for the April 2012 issue of Cato Unbound. Here are some relevant excerpts:

During the Progressive era, [Ludwig von] Mises complained that advocates of the New Liberalism [i.e., modern “liberals”] “arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to call their own program the program of welfare.” Mises regarded this as “a cheap logical trick.” The fact that classical liberals do not rely upon direct, state-based programs to distribute benefits does not mean that they are any less concerned for the poor.[15] Defending his preferred system of economic liberty, Mises wrote: “Any increase in total capital raises the income of capitalists and landowners absolutely and that of workers both absolutely and relatively. . . The interests of entrepreneurs can never diverge from those of consumers.”[16] If capitalism benefits the poor not just in real terms but also relatively to the wealthy, then capitalism is especially beneficial to the poor.

Mises’s critics (and some of his defenders) read Mises as whitewashing an uncompromising system of economic liberty with the idle hope that such a system maximizes productivity. On this reading, it is overall productivity that Mises cared about, and the distributional pattern that results is something about which Mises cared not one jot. However, notice what Mises did not say. He did not say: “The institutions of commercial society generate the greatest aggregate wealth and so, even though such institutions predictably deposit 20 percent of the population in a position of hereditary inferiority, this is A-OK.” Instead, Mises thought capitalist institutions justified, at least in part, because he believed a society-wide system of voluntary exchange will be materially beneficial for all citizens. Inequalities are justified, Mises seems to have argued, at least in part because they work to the material benefit of the least well off.

Indeed, Mises was explicit about the normative role he saw such claims playing within his defense of the free society. Thus: “In seeking to demonstrate the social function and necessity of private ownership of the means of production and of the concomitant inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, we are at the same time providing proof of the moral justification for private property and for the capitalist social order based upon it.”[17] The social function of inequalities—the benefits they provide to all, especially the poor—is an essential element in their moral justification.

It is no surprise, therefore, that when describing man’s role as a member of a (properly) liberal social order, Mises declared that each person “must adjust his conduct to the requirements of social cooperation and look upon his fellow men’s success as an indispensable condition of his own.”[18] Society, according to Mises, is a cooperative venture for mutual gain. In a good and just social order, people look upon the special talents of the fellow citizens not as weapons to be feared but as in some sense a common bounty. Economic competition is a morally praiseworthy form of social cooperation at least in part because it channels the talents of each towards the production of benefits for all….

[F]ree marketers should not be afraid to express a principled concern for the poor, or even to commit themselves to an ideal of social or distributive justice. First, in its philosophically most sophisticated formulations, such as that of left liberal paragon John Rawls, social justice concerns the material condition of the lowest paid workers—not that of idle surfers, coffeehouse Marxists, the unemployable, or even the temporarily unemployed. Second, social justice is not a property of the particular distributions that emerge in a society but of social and economic institutions viewed as integrated wholes. Thus a commitment to social justice in no way commits one to advocating liberty-limiting “corrections” of emergent distributions on an ongoing basis…. [A]s a consequence, a commitment to social justice does not require that one advocate “big state” welfare programs or anything even close. A set of institutions might well satisfy the requirements of social justice without including any state-based “redistributive” apparatus whatsoever.[24] After all, what are these requirements of social justice? According to Rawls, social justice allows for material inequalities, even extremely large and growing inequalities, provided only that the overall system works in a way that is beneficial to the lowest paid workers (that is, if the lowest paid workers in capitalist societies, over time, tend to earn more than the lowest paid workers in any noncapitalist alternative, then capitalist societies are better from the perspective of social justice)….

If that still leaves you puzzled about the relationship between “social justice” and libertarianism, perhaps this later entry by Zwolinski and Tomasi will make it clear:

…[S]ocial justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged [whatever they might be]. This broad concept can be fleshed out in a number of different ways by different particular conceptions of social justice. And a full conception would say, among other things, what counts as “advantage” (Wealth? Primary goods? Utility?), what the scope of social justice is (The nation? Humankind? All sentient beings?), how this standard of moral evaluation fits alongside others (nobody – not even Rawls – believes that the fate of the poor is the only important criterion for judging the morality of a society’s institutions), and so on. Again, we have not attempted to articulate or defend such a conception here. But it is not as though bleeding heart libertarians have been silent on this issue. For several serious scholarly treatments, see John’s book here, or this essay by Jason Brennan and John Tomasi. And see also the numerous blog posts from Jason (here, here, and here), Kevin Vallier (here and here) and me (here, here, here and here).

Our historical thesis is not that earlier classical liberals endorsed any particular conception of social justice. Indeed, we do not even claim that they were explicitly and self-consciously committed to even the broad concept of social justice. But they did, over and over again, suggest that they saw the fate of the working poor as an important element in assessing the justice of liberal institutions….

One of Zwolinski and Tomasi’s blog partners, Jason Brennan, puts it this way:

…All theorists who advocate social justice believe something like this:

  • If under favorable conditions, an political-economic regime systematically causes many innocent people, through no fault of their own, to live in poverty, without much opportunity, and without much ability to enjoy their freedom, and if there is some alternative regime that, under those same conditions, would eliminate these problems, this provides a strong presumption in favor of that alternative regime.
  • If our basic institutions systematically fail to benefit innocent people, or systematically tend to harm them, then it is unreasonable to ask them to observe those institutions. For instance, if through no fault of my own, some property rights regime causes me to starve, and if this isn’t just a result of bad luck but is a systematic effect of that regime, then the rest of you can’t demand I play along with the regime.

In other words, if a regime of liberty has consequences that, in the view of a BHL (or a left-statist), cause “many innocent people, through no fault of their own, to live in poverty,” it is legitimate to curtail the liberties of some so that others might enjoy unearned benefits.

Kevin Vallier, another BHL, puts it this way:

…[S]ocial justice is justice with regard to the arrangement of a society’s basic structure. Let’s take the second term first. Rawls defines a society’s basic structure as follows:

By the basic structure I mean a society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and how they fit together into one unified system of social cooperation from one generation to the next (PL, 11).

Rawls’s theory in Political Liberalism is meant to apply to modern constitutional democracy, such that the subject of social justice is the structure of the modern constitutional democratic state and the institutions it governs. For Rawls the basic structure is “the first subject of justice” (257). He states again that,

The basic structure is understood as they way in which the major social institutions fit together into one system, and how they assign fundamental rights and duties and shape the division of advantages that arises through social cooperation. Thus the political constitution, the legally recognized forms of property, and the organization of the economic, and the nature of the family, all belong to the basic structure (258).

So the basic structure is one great big social thing and serves as a subject of evaluation. A basic structure is socially unjust when it is not arranged in accord with principles that can be justified to each reasonable comprehensive doctrine (kind of like my discussion of public reason, but not the same)….

But modern constitutional democracy is not a voluntary social order. It is a statist order that is superimposed on and destructive of voluntary social institutions, not only free markets but also the other institutions of civil society: family, church, club, and so on. To suggest that the dictates of constitutional democracy somehow define “social justice” and legitimately override the workings of voluntary social institutions — free markets among them — is either naive or cynical.

I believe that it is cynical. The BHL proponents of “social justice” are intelligent and clever persons. They know what they are doing by wrapping their statist agenda in the banner of libertarianism. But their game is given away when one of their number dares, at last, to give operational meaning to “social justice.” I refer to the following utterances by another BHL, Jessica Flanagan:

I support a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and I think that other libertarians ought to as well….

When I say ‘social justice,’ I mean UBI. Below are several arguments for a basic income. I don’t endorse them all, but I’m including them all to show that there are many libertarian paths to this kind of ‘social justice’ conclusion.

First, I think that a UBI is morally required, given the wrong of a state-enforced property system….

Second, the UBI is relatively market friendly.… [W]e ought to support things like childcare and education vouchers, or a UBI for kids. Such a system would help citizens access the services they need without forcing them to sign up with a crappy state program.

Third, consider libertarian types like John Tomasi, Loren Lomasky, and Gerald Gaus, who argue that a UBI makes state power justifiable. Tomasi thinks that impartial institutional designers would first choose to protect important liberties (including economic liberties like contract and ownership) but then they would endorse redistributive policies to benefit society’s worst off within the limits of said liberties.

Fourth, a UBI can be compatible in principle with ‘hard libertarian’ property rights. Even if you were entitled to your property holdings, you are not entitled to coercive public enforcement of those holdings. Just because we have negative rights doesn’t mean that those rights merit full public accommodation. Once libertarians start demanding that their property is protected and their rights are publicly enforced, we can think of taxes as the public fee for that enforcement. If the public is the guardian of your wealth, who are you to tell your security guard how to spend his paycheck? This isn’t how states work, but it does point to a possible justification for redistribution.

Alternatively, some libertarians believe that a UBI is good because it will promote overall well being….

These arguments for the UBI also explain why libertarianism at its best is aligned with the political left. The world is really unjust in part because states coercively enforce laws that make people really badly off. On this we agree. Sufficiency is on the path to priority or equality, so for a while, BHL’s and leftists can walk the path from here to social justice together.

PS: Matt Zwolinski wrote a great essay on the topic of Classical Liberalism and The Basic Income (see SSRN for a PDF) 

Thus Flanagan exposes the truth about BHL: It is left-statist and anti-libertarian. It is nothing more than utilitarianism. That is to say, it is based on the presumptive, pseudo-omniscient belief that resources should be diverted from their owners to other persons, on the ground that those others “deserve” the diverted resources more than the owners of those resources. One among many justifications for this presumption is the pseudo-economic claim that money, for any individual, has diminishing marginal utility. Therefore, those from whom resources are taken suffer little if any loss of utility, whereas those (poorer persons) to whom resources are given gain much utility. This assumes a social-welfare function, which does not exist. It also assumes, wrongly, that the marginal utility of money diminishes as one accumulates more and more of it, which would come as a surprise to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, oil sheiks, and almost everyone who would love to become wealthier (which is most persons). It makes you wonder why millions of Americans buy lottery tickets every week, if not every day. (For more about utilitarianism and social welfare, see this, this, this, this, and this).

Flanagan, like many other BHLs (and most leftists) evidently believes that the owners of large claims on resources (e.g., “the 1%”) are undeserving of their claims because the “system” is rigged so that “the 1%” (and such-like) become rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. This is patent nonsense because it assumes that there is a possible “perfect” system that is not, in some way, rigged to benefit one set of elites or another.

The relevant questions, which go unanswered by BHLs (and leftists), are these:

  • Whether the current system of regulated capitalism, when enables some classes of individuals to piggy-back on others, is worse than the attainable alternatives (if there are any).
  • The extent to which those at the top actually cause deep poverty among those at the bottom.

I submit that because of the legal complexities of regulated capitalism it is impossible to know the extent to which those who benefit from the current system actually deprive others of the “just desserts.” Among the complexities are the many programs that work in favor of the “working poor” — and a vast cohort of sloths. Further, any regime — from libertarian to state-socialist — will generate a “1%.” And it is hard to say that the composition of America’s “1%” would not (for the most part) be the same under a regime of pure, anarchistic libertarianism or ironclad state-socialism. Ability, intelligence, guile, ambition, and ruthlessness rise to the top.

Flanagan’s point about the state’s right to spend its “paycheck” as it pleases is a bogus one. Those libertarians who accept the necessity of the state do so with the proviso that the state’s sole function is to protect property rights and negative rights. The state may spend its “paycheck” only for the purpose of protecting those rights — not for the purpose of spending the “paycheck” as it pleases. A state that goes beyond its remit to perform illegitimate functions does not collect a “paycheck” for its services. It steals.

As for UBI, it arrived on the scene a long time ago, in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, SNAP, AFDC, subsidized housing, subsidized mortgage loans, affirmative action, etc., etc., etc. It is pure naivete to suggest UBI as a politically feasible alternative to those programs, each of which has entrenched constituencies and powerful defenders. UBI would be an addition to the list, not a substitute for it.

Some final words for BHLs: If you know of persons who are poor and vulnerable, help them yourself. Give them your time and effort, give them money, or give money to a charity that actually does something to help. But do not presume to be my conscience, and take your hand out of my pocket.

Related reading:
The Top 0.1 Percent
Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism and “Social Justice”
Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Utilitarianism, and Statism

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* Here is a summary of the contributions to the April 2012 issue:

Lead Essay

  • A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism by Matt Zwolinski and John TomasiMatt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism by Roderick T. LongRoderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.
  • Natural Rights + ? by David D. FriedmanDavid Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.
  • Let’s Reject the Purity Test by Alexander McCobinAlexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.

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