Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking defines wishful thinking as “the erroneous belief that one’s wishes are in accordance with reality.” There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on, and it’s harmful to liberty and prosperity. I’m referring to the wishful thinking that characterizes modern liberalism, which is more properly called left-statism verging on despotism.

The dysfunctional manifestations of left-statism are too many to enumerate, let alone to detail in a single post. Obamacare is merely a current dysfunctional manifestation. It has many predecessors and will have many successors, unless constitutional government can somehow be restored in the United States. Some of the manifestations take the form of laws, executive decrees, and judicial holdings. Others reflect “big ideas” that give rise to illogical and ill-founded laws, decrees, and holdings.

Without further ado …


I wrote an entire post about “Regulation as Wishful Thinking.” The underlying theme is that regulators (and those who support regulation) believe that they can fine-tune economic and social behavior to achieve optimal (or at least better) outcomes than the one produced by free markets. If one paragraph sums up the effects of regulation, it’s this one:

Regulation is counterproductive for several reasons. First, it curtails positive externalities [the satisfaction of consumers’ wants that is forgone due to regulatory restraints on market activity]…. The other reasons, on which I expand below, are that regulation cannot be contained to “good causes,” nor can it be tailored to do good without doing harm. These objections might be dismissed as trivial if regulatory overkill were rare and relatively costless, but it is pervasive, extremely costly its own right, and a major contributor to the economic devastation that has been wrought by the regulatory-welfare state.

Read the whole thing for the details of the argument and the evidence of the devastation. For a jarring example, see John Goodman, “FDA Regulations Kill,” John Goodman’s Health Policy Blog, February 18, 2014.

Wish: Regulation improves social and economic outcomes.

Reality: Regulation restricts the ability of people to pursue their lawful interests, and thereby harms them socially and economically.

Bottom line: Regulation is harmful, because it substitutes the judgments of “technocrats” for the decentralized knowledge of millions of citizens. Its economic cost is more than 10 percent of GDP — and it leads to unnecessary loss of life.


Consider the intuitive and also well-documented relationship between taxes and economic activity. See, for example, Christina D. and David H. Romer, “The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks,”  Working Paper 13264, National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2007; and William McBride, “What Is the Evidence on Taxes and Growth?,” Tax Foundation, December 18, 2012. One must bend over backward to concoct a theory which says that a rise in taxes will not reduce the rate of economic output or the growth of that rate. But such theories are propounded because their proponents favor higher taxes for two closely related reasons: more taxes enable more government spending, and more government spending usually means “social” spending. (One reason that “liberals” are against defense spending — or more of it — is that it absorbs money that could go into “social” programs.)

Wish: Higher taxes don’t reduce GDP or the rate of economic growth.

Reality: Higher taxes do reduce GDP and the rate of economic growth.

Bottom line: Higher taxes (and more government) actually harm the poor (among others) by reducing economic activity and, thereby, reducing employment. As it turns out, the effect is substantial.


There are economists who support the minimum wage, not necessarily because of the economic soundness of the minimum wage, but because they just like the idea that (some) low-wage workers will make more because of it. Some of those economists have even produced studies which purport to show that a minimum wage has a “small” effect on the employment of low-wage workers. As if “small” were of no consequence to those who are unable to find and keep low-wage jobs because of the minimum wage. Well, the minimum wage — and its more overtly political twin, the “living wage” — do harm low-wage workers. And that’s that. See Linda Gorman, “Minimum Wages,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at The Library of Economics and Liberty. For the latest, see James Pethokoukis, “CBO: The $10.10 Minimum Wage Would Cost 500,000 Jobs, With Most Benefits Going to Non-Poor,” AEIdeas, February 18, 2014.

Wish: Government can help low-skill workers by forcing employers to pay them more.

Reality: Minimum wages and “living wages” result in less employment among low-wage workers.

Bottom line: Those who are in most need of employment, and for whom the private sector would provide employment (other things being the same), are deprived of employment by well-meaning but economically wrong-headed minimum-wage and “living wage” laws.


What about capital punishment? A paper from 1973, just a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia effectively outlawed capital punishment, offers an exhaustive statistical analysis of the deterrent effect of capital punishment. See Isaac Ehrlich, “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death,” Working Paper No. 18, Center for Economic Analysis of Human Institutions, National Bureau of Economic Analysis, November 1973. The author’s conclusion:

[A]n additional execution per year over the period in question [1933-1969] may have resulted, on average, in 7 or 8 fewer murders.


Previous investigations … have developed evidence used to unequivocally deny the existence of any deterrent or preventive effects of capital punishment. This evidence stems by and large from what amounts to informal tests of the sign of the simple correlation between the legal status of the death penalty and the murder rate across states and over time in a few states. Studies performing these tests have not considered systematically the actual enforcement of the death penalty, which may be a far more important factor affecting offenders’ behavior than the legal status of the penalty. Moreover, these studies have generally ignored other parameters characterizing law enforcement activity against murder, such as the probabilities o± apprehension and conviction, which appear to be systematically related to the probability of punishment by execution.

In my words:

Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was certain and harsh. There must be a hierarchy of certain penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia), with restrictions, capital punishment has become less swift and less sure than it had been. There were 1,359 executions in 1976-2013, an average of 36 a year, as against 4,863 in 1930-1972, an average of 113 a year. That is, the rate of executions has dropped by two-thirds from its pre-Furman rate. The drop in the execution rate notwithstanding, the deterrent effect of capital punishment remained strong, at least through 2000. See Hashem Dezhbaksh, Paul Robin, and Joanna Shepherd, “Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from post-moratorium panel data,” American Law and Economics Review 5(2): 344–376 (available in pdf format here. The authors argue that each execution deters eighteen murders, a number that reflects the larger population of the U.S. during the period covered by their analysis. It’s hard to read the two papers cited here and believe that capital punishment doesn’t deter homicide — unless you want to believe it.

Altogether, the more “humane” treatment of murderers since 1976 has cost 600 to 1,400 lives every year, or 23,000 to 53,000 lives in the past 38 years.

Wish: Capital-punishment is nothing more than murder by the state, and (non sequitur) it doesn’t deter murder, anyway.

Reality: Capital punishment is punishment, and when it is administered surely and swiftly it does deter murder.

Bottom line: Perhaps more than 50,000 murders would have been prevented if the rate of executions hadn’t been slowed drastically following the 1972-1976 moratorium on capital punishment.


There’s a twisted consistency between opposition to capital punishment and support of stringent measures to control the availability of firearms. Both positions tip the scales in favor of predators and away from peaceful citizens.

To favor gun control is to engage in wishful thinking at its best (or worst). Why? Because to favor gun control is to favor the criminal over the law-abiding citizen. But according to wishful thinkers, stringent gun control would lead to a reduction violent crimes. As with the other kinds of wishful thinking addressed here, it just ain’t so.

John Lott‘s More Guns, Less Crime is the elephant in the room, and can’t be ignored. In that book, the article on which it’s based, and other books, Lott argues that allowing adults to own or carry guns leads to a significant reduction in crime. Lott’s work was controversial — some called it incendiary. Not surprisingly, many academics opened fire on it, picking and poking at Lott’s data and methods. I say not surprisingly because — in case it has escaped your attention — academics tend to be (wishful-thinking) leftists.

To save time and space, I fast-forward to a paper by Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser, “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?,” first published in Harvard’s Journal of Public Law and Policy (Vol. 30, No. 2, 2007, pp. 649-694). Here are some relevant excerpts:

There are now 40 states where qualified citizens can obtain such a handgun permit.28 As a result, the number of U.S. citizens allowed to carry concealed handguns in shopping malls, on the street, and in their cars has grown to 3.5 million men and women.29 Economists John Lott and David Mustard have suggested that these new laws contributed to the drop in homicide and violent crime rates. Based on 25 years of correlated statistics from all of the more than 3,000 American counties, Lott and Mustard conclude that adoption of these statutes has deterred criminals from confrontation crime and caused murder and violent crime to fall faster in states that adopted this policy than in states that did not.30 (op. cit., p. 658)

Footnote 30 reads, in relevant part:

This conclusion is vehemently rejected by antigun advocates and academics who oppose armed self‐defense. See, e.g., Albert W. Alschuler, Two Guns, Four Guns, Six Guns, More Guns: Does Arming the Public Reduce Crime?, 31 VAL. U. L. REV. 365, 366 (1997); Ian Ayres & John J. Donohue III, Shooting Down the ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Hypothesis, 55 STAN. L. REV. 1193, 1197 (2003); Dan A. Black & Daniel S. Nagin, Do Right‐to‐Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?, 27 J. LEGAL STUD. 209, 209 (1998); Franklin Zimring & Gordon Hawkins, Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent, RESPONSIVE COMMUNITY, Spring 1997, at 46; Daniel W. Webster, The Claims That Right‐to‐Carry Laws Reduce Violent Crime Are Unsubstantiated (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, 1997). Several critics have now replicated Lott’s work using additional or different data, additional control variables, or new or different statistical techniques they deem superior to those Lott used. Interestingly, the replications all confirm Lott’s general conclusions; some even find that Lott underestimated the crime‐reductive effects of allowing good citizens to carry concealed guns. See Jeffrey A. Miron, Violence, Guns, and Drugs: A Cross‐Country Analysis, 44 J.L. & ECON. 615 (2001); David B. Mustard, The Impact of Gun Laws on Police Deaths, 44 J.L. & ECON. 635 (2001); John R. Lott, Jr. & John E. Whitley, Safe‐Storage Gun Laws: Accidental Deaths, Suicides, and Crime, 44 J.L. & ECON. 659 (2001); Thomas B. Marvell, The Impact of Banning Juvenile Gun Possession, 44 J.L. & ECON. 691 (2001); Jeffrey S. Parker, Guns, Crime, and Academics: Some Reflections on the Gun Control Debate, 44 J.L. & ECON. 715 (2001); Bruce L. Benson & Brent D. Mast, Privately Produced General Deterrence, 44 J.L. & ECON. 725 (2001); David E. Olson & Michael D. Maltz, Right‐to‐Carry Concealed Weapon Laws and Homicide in Large U.S. Counties: The Effect on Weapon Types, Victim Characteristics, and Victim‐Offender Relationships, 44 J.L. & ECON. 747 (2001); Florenz Plassmann & T. Nicolaus Tideman, Does the Right to Carry Concealed Handguns Deter Countable Crimes? Only a Count Analysis Can Say, 44 J.L. & ECON. 771 (2001); Carlisle E. Moody, Testing for the Effects of Concealed Weapons Laws: Specification Errors and Robustness, 44 J.L. & ECON. 799 (2001); see also Florenz Plassman & John Whitley, Confirming ‘More Guns, Less Crime,’ 55 STAN. L. REV. 1313, 1316 (2003). In 2003, Lott reiterated and extended his findings, which were subsequently endorsed by three Nobel laureates. See JOHN R. LOTT, JR., THE BIAS AGAINST GUNS (2003). (op. cit., pp. 658-9, emphasis added)

There are so many gems in the article that it is hard to stop quoting it. I should say “read the whole thing,” but I’ll succumb to temptation and quote a few choice passages here, and many more in the note at the bottom of this post (footnote numbers omitted for ease of reading):

[A study by Hans Toch and Alan J. Lizotte shows that] “data on firearms ownership by constabulary area in England,” like data from the United States, show “a negative correlation,” that is, “where firearms are most dense violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest.” (p. 653)

A second misconception about the relationship between firearms and violence attributes Europe’s generally low homicide rates to stringent gun control. That attribution cannot be accurate since murder in Europe was at an all‐time low before the gun controls were introduced. (p. 653-4)

[T]wo recent studies are pertinent. In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research. It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents. The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s review of then extant studies. (p. 654)

In the late 1990s, England moved from stringent controls to a complete ban of all handguns and many types of long guns. Hundreds of thousands of guns were confiscated from those owners law‐abiding enough to turn them in to authorities. Without suggesting this caused violence, the ban’s ineffectiveness was such that by the year 2000 violent crime had so increased that England and Wales had Europe’s highest violent crime rate, far surpassing even the United States. (p. 655)

[A]doption of state laws permitting millions of qualified citizens to carry guns has not resulted in more murder or violent crime in these states. Rather, adoption of these statutes has been followed by very significant reductions in murder and violence in these states. (p. 659)

[T]he determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic, and cultural factors, not the prevalence of some form of deadly mechanism. In this connection, recall that the American jurisdictions which have the highest violent crime rates are precisely those with the most stringent gun controls. (p. 663)

More than 100 million handguns are owned in the United States84 primarily for self‐defense, and 3.5 million people have permits to carry concealed handguns for protection. Recent analysis reveals “a great deal of self‐defensive use of firearms” in the United States, “in fact, more defensive gun uses [by victims] than crimes committed with firearms.” It is little wonder that the

National Institute of Justice surveys among prison inmates find that large percentages report that their fear that a victim might be armed deterred them from confrontation crimes. “[T]he felons most frightened ‘about confronting an armed victim’ were those from states with the greatest relative number of privately owned firearms.” Conversely, robbery
is highest in states that most restrict gun ownership.

Concomitantly, a series of studies by John Lott and his coauthor David Mustard conclude that the issuance of millions of permits to carry concealed handguns is associated with drastic declines in American homicide rates. (p. 671)

Per capita, African‐American murder rates are much higher than the murder rate for whites. If more guns equal more death, and fewer guns equal less, one might assume gun ownership is higher among African‐ Americans than among whites, but in fact African‐ American gun ownership is markedly lower than white gun ownership. (p. 676)

The reason fewer guns among ordinary African‐Americans does not lead to fewer murders is because that paucity does not translate to fewer guns for the aberrant minority who do murder. The correlation of very high murder rates with low gun ownership in African‐American communities simply does not bear out the notion that disarming the populace as a whole will disarm and prevent murder by potential murderers. (p. 678)

In sum, the data for the decades since the end of World War II also fails to bear out the more guns equal more death mantra. The per capita accumulated stock of guns has increased, yet there has been no correspondingly consistent increase in either total violence or gun violence. The evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that gun possession levels have little impact on violence rates. (p. 685)

Wish: Gun-control (or confiscation) will reduce violent crime.

Reality: More guns, no more crime. Crime is a product of underlying social and economic factors that vary from nation to nation, region to region, and socio-economic group to socio-economic group.

Bottom line: The desire to limit or eliminate private ownership of firearms reflects a distaste for weapons and an irrational reaction to relatively rare but horrific instances of gun violence. But the effect of limiting or eliminating private ownership is to disarm law-abiding citizens and encourage crime against them.


If the list of leftist delusions isn’t infinite, it’s certainly very long. For example, there’s wishful thinking about peace, about gender discrimination, about racial equality, about crime, about income inequality, about society, about social welfare, and about the pseudo-scientific religion of global warming.

Why so many delusions? To those who believe — despite the evidence — that persons of the “liberal” (i.e., left-statist) persuasion are smarter or more rational than persons of the right, I commend my own best-selling post, “Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness,” and two articles by James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?“and “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?” (The answers may surprise you, though they shouldn’t, now that you’ve read this far.)

To wrap up this long post, I simply urge you to peruse some of my “Favorite Posts,” especially the posts under these headings:

It’s best to start with the newer posts at the bottom of each section, and work up to earlier ones, which often are referenced or incorporated in later posts.

More quotations from “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?.”

Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates. Since well before that date, the Soviet Union possessed extremely stringent gun controls that were effectuated by a police state apparatus providing stringent enforcement. So successful was that regime that few Russian civilians now have firearms and very few murders involve them. Yet, manifest success in keeping its people disarmed did not prevent the Soviet Union from having far and away the highest murder rate in the developed world.6 (pp. 650-1)

Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany [with 30 guns per 100 persons] in 2002. (p. 652)

[D]espite constant and substantially increasing gun ownership, the United States saw progressive and dramatic reductions in criminal violence in the 1990s. On the other hand, the same time period in the United Kingdom saw a constant and dramatic increase in violent crime to which England’s response was ever‐more drastic gun control including, eventually, banning and confiscating all handguns and many types of long guns. Nevertheless, criminal violence rampantly increased so that by 2000 England surpassed the United States to become one of the developed world’s most violence‐ridden nations. (p. 656)

[V]iolent crime, and homicide in particular, has plummeted in the United States over the past 15 years. The fall in the American crime rate is even more impressive when compared with the rest of the world. In 18 of the 25 countries surveyed by the British Home Office, violent crime increased during the 1990s. This contrast should induce thoughtful people to wonder what happened in those nations, and to question policies based on the notion that introducing increasingly more restrictive firearm ownership laws reduces violent crime. (p. 660)

The “more guns equal more death” mantra seems plausible only when viewed through the rubric that murders mostly involve ordinary people who kill because they have access to a firearm when they get angry. If this were true, murder might well increase where people have ready access to firearms, but the available data provides no such correlation. Nations and areas with more guns per capita do not have higher murder rates than those with fewer guns per capita. (pp. 665-6)

[R]educing gun ownership by the law‐abiding citizenry— the only ones who obey gun laws—does not reduce violence or murder. The result is that high crime nations that ban guns to reduce crime end up having both high crime and stringent gun laws, while it appears that low crime nations that do not significantly restrict guns continue to have low violence rates. (p. 672)

A recent study of all counties in the United States has again demonstrated the lack of relationship between the prevalence of firearms and homicide. (p. 686)

Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism

I highly recommend “Understanding Hayek” as a companion-piece to this post.

UPDATED (BELOW), 06/01/12

This post is in response to Jason Brennan’s post of May 30, “We Are Statists in Classical Liberal Clothing.” Brennan’s post was triggered ” by “Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists,” which I posted on May 10.

I must say, first, that I am grateful to Brennan for linking to my blog, my bio, and the post that offends him. Today, the number of page views at Politics & Prosperity is about double the usual total for a Wednesday.

Now, what is right and what is wrong in Brennan’s reaction to my (admittedly and intentionally) provocative post? The first thing that is wrong with it is that I am not a libertarian, at least not of a kind that Brennan and company would recognize as such. I call myself a Burkean libertarian because (a) I am a Burkean conservative and (b) true libertarianism is found in Burkean conservatism; to wit:

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

If socially evolved norms include the condemnation of abortion (because it involves the murder of a living human being) and the rejection of same-sex “marriage” (because it mocks and undermines the institution through which children are born and raised by an adult of each gender, fate willing), the “true” libertarian will accept those norms as part and parcel of the larger social order — as long as it is a peaceful, voluntary order.

The “pseudo” libertarian — in my observation — will reject those norms because they interfere with the “natural rights” (or some such thing) of the individuals who want to abort fetuses and/or grant same-sex “marriage” the same status as heterosexual marriage. But to reject and reverse norms as fundamental as the condemnation of abortion and same-sex “marriage”  is to create strife and distrust, therefore undermining the conditions upon which liberty depends….

The pseudo-libertarian … is afraid to admit that the long evolution of rules of conduct by human beings who must coexist  might just be superior to the rules that he would arbitrarily impose, reflecting as they do his “superior” sensibilities. I say “arbitrarily” because pseudo-libertarians have not been notably critical of the judicial impositions that have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, or of the legislative impositions that have corrupted property rights in the pursuit of “social justice.”

All in all, it seems that pseudo-libertarians believe in the possibility of separating the warp and woof of society without causing the disintegration of the social fabric. The pseudo-libertarian, in that respect, mimics the doctrinaire socialist who wants prosperity but rejects one of its foundation stones: property rights.

A true libertarian will eschew the temptation to prescribe the details of social conduct. He will, instead, take the following positions:

  • The role of the state is to protect individuals from deceit, coercion, and force.
  • The rules of social conduct are adopted voluntarily within that framework are legitimate and libertarian.

There is much more to it than that, of course. So, before anyone challenges my view of what truly constitutes libertarianism, he or she should first read the many posts that I link to at the bottom of this one.

Brennan’s second mistake is to assume that I am interested in libertarian purity. The original title of his post was “Libertarian Purity: Statists in Classical Liberal Clothing”; he calls me a hardcore libertarian; and — following a flawed reconstruction of my argument (about which more, below) — he links to an “antidote,” which is a piece by Alexander McCubin called “Let’s Reject the Purity Test.” But, as a non-libertarian, I am uninterested in libertarian purity.

What I am interested in, in the case of Brennan, many of his co-authors at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and others of their ilk, is how they can call themselves libertarians when they are willing to invoke the power of the state to bring the social and economic order into compliance with their preconceptions of its proper shape. It is not as if I suddenly arrived at that assessment. Here is a list of fourteen earlier posts in which I address various aspects of the contorted libertarianism of BHLs:

The Meaning of Liberty” (03/09/11)
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty” (03/25/11)
More Social Justice” (03/30/11)
On Self-Ownership and Desert” (04/22/11)
Corporations, Unions, and the State” (06/30/11)
In Defense of Subjectivism” (08/02/11)
The Folly of Pacifism, Again” (08/28/11)
What Is Libertarianism?” (09/06/11)
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?” (09/22/11)
Regulation as Wishful Thinking” (10/13/11)
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?” (12/17/11)
The Morality of Occupying Private Property” (12/21/11)
The Equal-Protection Scam and Same-Sex ‘Marriage’” (01/03/12)
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts” (02/13/12)

A third, arguably wrong thing in Brennan’s post is his statement that “Hayek was more ‘statist’ than Zwolinski or I.” I do not know how to measure degrees of statism (perhaps Brennan can tell me), but I respect Hayek and his memory because, for one thing, he did not pretend to be a libertarian. This passage from the Wikipedia article about Hayek comports with what I know of him and his ideas:

Hayek wrote an essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”[94] (included as an appendix to The Constitution of Liberty), in which he disparaged conservatism for its inability to adapt to changing human realities or to offer a positive political program, remarking, “Conservatism is only as good as what it conserves”. Although he noted that modern day conservatism shares many opinions on economics with classic liberals, particularly a belief in the free market, he believed it’s because conservatism wants to “stand still,” whereas liberalism embraces the free market because it “wants to go somewhere”. Hayek identified himself as a classical liberal but noted that in the United States it had become almost impossible to use “liberal” in its original definition, and the term “libertarian” has been used instead.

However, for his part, Hayek found this term “singularly unattractive” and offered the term “Old Whig” (a phrase borrowed from Edmund Burke) instead. In his later life, he said, “I am becoming a Burkean Whig.” However, Whiggery as a political doctrine had little affinity for classical political economy, the tabernacle of the Manchester School and William Gladstone.[95] His essay has served as an inspiration to other liberal-minded economists wishing to distinguish themselves from conservative thinkers, for example James M. Buchanan‘s essay “Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism”.

A common term in much of the world for what Hayek espoused is “neoliberalism“. A British scholar, Samuel Brittan, concluded in 2010, “Hayek’s book [The Constitution of Liberty] is still probably the most comprehensive statement of the underlying ideas of the moderate free market philosophy espoused by neoliberals.”[96]

In Why F A Hayek is a Conservative,[97] British policy analyst Madsen Pirie believes Hayek mistakes the nature of the conservative outlook. Conservatives, he says, are not averse to change – but like Hayek, they are highly averse to change being imposed on the social order by people in authority who think they know how to run things better. They wish to allow the market to function smoothly and give it the freedom to change and develop. It is an outlook, says Pirie, that Hayek and conservatives both share.

If Hayek was, in some respects, more statist than Brennan and company, his essential program was nevertheless more libertarian — by my lights — because it was more grounded in an understanding of and respect for society as a complex organism. That is why I dedicate this blog to Hayek’s memory.

BHLs, in contrast to Hayek, strike me as shallow and naive. They seem to believe that their proposed interventions in the name of “social justice” would (a) work as intended and (b) not invite further interventions from entrenched (and more powerful) interests. Interventions are to the state what raw meat is to a beast. Libertarians should be proposing ways to tame the beast, not feed it.

Which brings me to my final point: Brennan’s reconstruction of an argument (my argument?) that he attributes to “hardcore libertarians”:

  1. Most of the BHLers think that the consequences of different kinds of institutions matter sufficiently that, under at least some hypothetical circumstances, they would not advocate anarcho-capitalism or minimal statism.
  2. If 1, then BHLers are left-statists.
  3. Therefore, BHLers are left-statists.
  4. Either the BHLers are stupid and don’t know they are left-statists, or they are conniving and know they are left-statists.
  5. The BHLers are not stupid. [Thanks for the bone!]
  6. Therefore, the BHLers are conniving and know they are left-statists.

My argument was rather more complex and nuanced than that. I will not replicate or summarize it here; you can read it for yourself. Brennan focuses on one (non-essential) aspect of my argument, the one that offends him — namely, that BHLs are conniving left-statists. Brennan’s post convinces me that I was wrong to imply that BHLs are connivers; they (or too many of them) are just arrogant in their judgments about “social justice” and naive when they presume that the state can enact it. It follows that (most) BHLs are not witting left-statists; they are (too often) just unwitting accomplices of left-statism.

Accordingly, if I were to re-title the offending post I would call it “Bleeding-Heart Libertarians: Crypto-Statists or Dupes for Statism?”.

UPDATE (06/01/12):

I will not respond to every commentary about this post, but I will say some things about “Saving Liberty from the ‘True Libertarians’,” by “dL” of Libérale et libertaire. First, though, I want to thank dL for using an attractive WordPress theme, Suburbia, I liked the look of dL’s blog so much that I switched to Suburbia almost as soon as I had finished reading dL’s post. [06/08/12: I later found and switched to DePo Masthead. It is another multi-column theme, but unlike Suburbia, the front page of DePo Masthead displays complete, properly formatted posts.] [06/12/12: DePo Masthead had drawbacks that were not evident when I previewed it. I am now using NotesIL, which is much like Enterprise, the theme I had used for at least a few years, but with a brighter look and a sidebar on the left.]

Now, for the serious stuff. It would seem that dL did not heed what I say in the original post:

[B]efore anyone challenges my view of what truly constitutes libertarianism, he or she should first read the many posts that I link to at the bottom of this one.

Had dL done what I suggest, he or she would have learned that I do, in fact, accept Hayek’s “evolutionary social framework methodology.” I repeatedly invoke “voluntarily evolved social norms” as the bedrock of a truly libertarian social order.

And why is such a social order “truly libertarian”? Well, it is easy to say, as dL does, that

Liberty is simply defined as “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others.”

This is an empty formulation that is nowhere close to an operational definition of liberty. Real liberty — what I call “true liberty” — is not a string of words on paper, it is a feasible social order. It is — as I say in several of the posts that dL evidently did not read — a modus vivendi. To spare dL (and others) the trouble of digging through my posts, I quote at length from “The Meaning of Liberty“:

[A]t least one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians — a new group blog whose eight contributors (thus far) are professors of law and/or philosophy — advances the proposition that “liberty” means whatever non-philosophers think it means. The contributor in question, Jason Brennan, justifies his preference by saying  that liberty “is a concept philosophers are interested in, but it’s a not a philosopher’s technical term.”

That may be so, but I would think that philosophers who are going to use a term that is central to the theme of their blog — the connection of libertarianism to social justice — would begin by searching for a relevant and logically consistent definition of liberty. Brennan, instead, casts a wide net and hauls in a list of seven popular definitions, one of which (negative liberty) has three sub-definitions. That may be a useful starting point, but Brennan leaves it there, thus implying that liberty is whatever anyone thinks it is….

I am struck by the fact that none of the definitions offered by Brennan is a good definition of liberty (about which, more below)…. I therefore humbly suggest that the next order of business at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism ought to be a concerted effort to define the concept that is part of the blog’s raison d’etre.

To help Brennan & Co. in their quest, I offer the following definition of liberty, which is from the first post at this blog, “On Liberty“:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

The problem with the definitions listed by Brennan should now be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of Brennan’s list — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

The implausibility of the second condition is critical to a proper understanding of liberty. Brennan says (in “Positive Liberty and Legal Guarantees“) that “[w]e often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; that is, compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of like minds about everything.

In sum, “peaceful, willing coexistence” does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of “beneficially cooperative behavior.” Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

The specific landscape of liberty — the rights and obligations of individuals with respect to one another — depends on the size and composition of the social group in question. It is there that the question of positive vs. negative liberty (really positive vs. negative rights) takes on importance. I will tackle that question in a future post.

I would expect dL (and many others) to protest that I hold a morally relative view of what constitutes liberty. I might let that assertion bother me if morality existed as an ideal (Platonic) form, visible to superior beings like dL, but not to mere mortals like me. But morality, itself, arises from the nature of human beings as social animals, a nature that is widely (though not universally) shared across races, ethnicities, and cultures. (On this point, see my posts “Libertarianism and Morality” and “Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote.”) Unlike dL and his or her ilk, I prefer to ground political theory in the possible, not the imaginary ideal.

It seems that dL is especially vexed by what he or she calls my “byline.” This is a slogan that appears near the title of this blog, a slogan that I change from time to time. The current slogan is “Gay ‘marriage’: a tyranny of a minuscule minority.” This, to dL, is evidence that I am a defender of a “’tradition’ is not the actual tradition”; that is, I am anxious to defend a particular status quo instead of allowing social norms to evolve, as a good Hayekian would do.

I do not see how it is unfaithful to conservatism of the Burkean-Hayekian kind to oppose gay “marriage” in the current circumstances. Put simply, we have on the one hand a long-standing social institution that pre-dates the state, and on the other hand a “movement” to redefine that institution through the use of state power: legislative, executive, and judicial. If popular opinion is swinging toward support for gay “marriage,” as has been reported, we can chalk up a good deal of the swing to the influence of state action on popular opinion, and not vice versa. Is that dL’s idea of “actual tradition”?

The “About” page at dL’s blog opens with this quotation:

Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

This is exactly 180 degrees from what is true and feasible in the real world. It is order (of a socially agreed kind) that fosters liberty and defines its precise contours.

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

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism

* 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.

The Conversation

The Left

The “left” of the title refers, specifically, to left-statists or (usually) leftists.

I describe statism in “Parsing Political Philosophy“:

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government….

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist…. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others….

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do [certain] things….

I continue by saying that left-statists (L-S)

prefer such things as income redistribution, affirmative action, and the legitimation of gay marriage….L-S prefer government intervention in the economy, not only for the purpose of redistributing income but also to provide goods and services that can be provided more efficiently by the private sector, to regulate what remains of the private sector, and to engage aggressively in monetary and fiscal measures to maintain “full employment.” It should be evident that L-S have no respect for property rights, given their willingness to allow government to tax and regulate at will….

L-S tend toward leniency and forgiveness of criminals (unless the L-S or those close to him are the victims)…. On defense, L-S act as if they prefer Chamberlain to Churchill, their protestations to the contrary….

L-S have no room in their minds for civil society; government is their idea of “community.”…

It is no wonder that most “liberals” (L) and “progressives” (P) try to evade the “leftist” label. (I enclose “liberal,” “progressive,” and forms thereof in quotation marks because L are anything but liberal, in the core meaning of the word, and the policies favored by P are regressive in their effects on economic and social liberty.) L and P usually succeed in their evasion because the center of American politics has shifted so far to the left that Franklin Roosevelt — a leftist by any reasonable standard — would stand at the center of today’s political spectrum.

Indeed, the growing dominance of leftism can be seen in the history of the U.S. presidency. It all started with Crazy Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to dedicate himself to the use of state power to advance his cause du jour. (I do not credit the anti-Lincoln zealotry of  the Ludwig von Mises Institute.) TR’s leftism was evident in his “activist” approach to the presidency. No issue, it seems, was beneath TR’s notice or beyond the reach of the extra-constitutional powers he arrogated to himself. TR, in other words, was the role model for Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover (yes, Hoover the “do nothing” whose post-Crash activism helped to bring on the Great Depression), Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. (For more about American presidents and their predilections, see this, this, and this.) Countless members of Congress and State and local officials have been, and are, “activists” in the image of TR.

In sum, the problem with America — and it boils down to a single problem — is the left’s success in advancing its agenda. What is that agenda, and how does the left advance it?

The left advances its agenda in many ways, for example, by demonizing its opponents (small-government opponents are simply “mean”), appealing to envy (various forms of redistribution), sanctifying an ever-growing list of “victimized” groups (various protected “minorities”), making a virtue of mediocrity (various kinds of risk-avoiding regulations), and taking a slice at a time (e.g., Social Security set the stage for Medicare which set for Obamacare).

The left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible). (For a broad enumeration, see this post.)

Leftists like to say that there is a difference between opposition and disloyalty. But, in the case of the left, opposition arises from a fundamental kind of disloyalty. For, at bottom, the left pursues its agenda because  it hates the idea of what America used to stand for: liberty with responsibility, strength against foreign and domestic enemies.

Most leftists are simply shallow-minded trend-followers, who believe in the power of government to do things that are “good,” “fair,” or “compassionate,” with no regard for the costs and consequences of those things. Shallow leftists know not what they do. But they do it. And their shallowness does not excuse them for having been accessories to the diminution of  America. A rabid dog may not know that it is rabid, but its bite is no less lethal for that.

The leaders of the left — the office-holders, pundits, and intelligentsia — usually pay lip-service to “goodness,” “fairness,” and “compassion.” But their lip-service fails to conceal their brutal betrayal of liberty. Their subtle and not-so-subtle treason is despicable almost beyond words. But not quite…

Related posts:
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come

On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism and the Future of America
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?

The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work