David R. Henderson  

David Friedman on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

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Sometimes a comment on Econlog is so valuable that I think it needs to be highlighted. Most of the people I talk to who read this site regularly but who don't comment, don't read others' comments either. They would miss, therefore, David Friedman's cogent comment on Bryan Caplan's recent post.

David wrote:

I agree that it is worth pointing out that government hurts the poor, and also worth disagreeing without being disagreeable. But I don't think either of those positions represents the difference between Bleeding-heart libertarians and other libertarians. I offered arguments for open immigration and reasons to think that government often hurts the poor in a book published about forty years ago--and neither of those was an exotic position among libertarians then.

My complaint about the BHL, as may be obvious from the exchanges now going on, is that they insist that social justice ought to be part of libertarianism but are unwilling to tell us what it means. As far as I can judge by observations of usage, "social justice" means "ideas of justice that appeal to left wingers," and its practical implication is the rule that, with regard to any issue at all, the first question to ask is how it affects the poor.

The only reason I can see why libertarians would want to adopt that terminology is to appeal to leftish academics. Fraudulently.


I have known David since November 1971 and I know how thoughtful he is about things. I also know how carefully he states things. Notice that he's NOT saying that arguments about focusing on the poor are bad arguments. He (and I) think they are powerful arguments.

I would love to see how the BHLs respond to his Reaction Essay of April 6, 2012. Maybe they have and I've missed it. Cato Unbound puts up an essay without giving a link or even hinting that there's another essay on the same topic, except the essay on which the author is commenting. So if anyone can point me to an essay where Matt Zwolinski and/or John Tomasi explicitly address David Friedman's points, I would appreciate it.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Faze writes:

The call for "compassionate" libertarianism, like the call for "compassionate conservatism" is self-inculpating -- and falsely so. Libertarianism is inherently compassionate. We don't believe in economic and social liberty because it creates the best possible world for a narrowly interested group. We support these things because we believe they create the best possible world for everybody -- including the poor. Isn't this taken for granted?

If I thought the poor in particular suffered under a free market system, I would abhor it. But you and I know that such a system offers the poor more opportunities, and in the long run, allows more of the poor to prosper, or rise to their just level than the government welfare model. We're not libertarians because we hate the poor, but because we love humanity, rich and poor, and we want to see it maximize its potential.

There is no reason even to be having the "liberaltarianism" argument. Or am I nuts, and is there some big "poor be damned" faction among free market fans that I've never encountered?

david writes:

For readers of this blog, there is an exchange here in the comments, including by one "Davidrhenderson1950" who may or may not be our kind host (such is the Internet).

By and large the BHL blog seems to focus on making the point, well-known amongst academic liberals and libertarians, that the non-aggression principle plus self-ownership is insufficient as a political theory. You need a 'thick' theory of political fairness and most libertarians simply implicitly invoke one, often one that is not very nice when dragged into the light. Pointing this out provokes the odd Rothbardian devotee and, mostly, non-academic libertarians. The latter make up a lot of the commnets at the BHL blog.

I would not expect Zwolinski and company to provide a succinct answer to "so... what's social justice, again?" any time soon, but I don't really see this as a problem - the genesis of liberaltarianism on the blogosphere was always more of a vague reaction to the nastiness of hard libertarians than any central vision of social justice, anyway. And that's still a good - hard libertarians are less nasty and less liable to Rothbard-style Faustian bargains with the far right when they are continually pressed on the point.

Qua Wilkinson, three years ago: "[C]ulture and convention can limit liberty ... One can believe that the state may legitimately act only to protect liberty. But that does not imply that the state must do anything in its power that might protect or enhance liberty." If there was ever an expression of non-committal liberalism, this is it. BHL merely took it in a more academic form.

AC writes:

Someone must know those Cato guys, they've got some good content on Cato Unbound, but as you said, if you're not coming from the main essay it's very hard to navigate.

Mark Brady writes:

I agree David Friedman is right on target. You might find some sort of reply from Zwolinski and/or Tomasi here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/, which is the less-than-obvious way readers can follow the current conversation at Cato Unbound.

And you can read how Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi respond to my questions about social justice by scrolling down to the final comments here: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/04/market-democracy-and-bleeding-heart-libertarianism-trivial-boring-and-empty/

Daniel Shapiro writes:

I don't have Cato Unbound in front of me as I write this, but Jason Brennan in a recent BHL post discusses the definition of social justice. That may help. I'm doing this on my IPad and have trouble linking, but if you go to the BHL site, you will find a recent post by Jason.

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Follow up from above: here's the link. See in particular the comments by Kevin Vallier and Matt Zwolinski.

http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/04/the-evil-of-bleeding-heart-libertarianism/

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Apropos of not much, but: Mrs. Sheep Nazi happens to be of the Anglican persuasion. Her old congregation numbered about twenty people, all elderly. Then it dissolved into schism and faction -- ten of them left, and formed their own church in the old deacon's basement. Not to sound too unfriendly here, but you are making those folk seem rational, sensible, and relevant by comparison. At least they realized that they were in the church business. Go win an election someplace, and then maybe see how you fare with your doctrinal disputes.

David R. Henderson writes:

@The Sheep Nazi,
You tell us to go “win an election someplace” and you use a moniker that has in it one of the most hated terms (and rightly so) of the 20th century? Irony alert.
Oh, and by the way, I have helped win some elections, including one in which we were outspent about 100 to 1. And one thing I made sure I did during that election was get the “doctrine” right. Arguments matter, and the case you make for your positions matters. If you don’t think that’s important, then fine, no one is making you read this.

Robert writes:

Prof. Henderson,

Thank you for highlighting Prof. Friedman's comment. I don't normally peruse the comments, and would have missed this comment.

Stephen Hicks writes:

I first came across the BHL issue via your post here, David. My thoughts here:
http://www.stephenhicks.org/2012/05/01/bleeding-heart-libertarianism/.
Stephen

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