Bryan Caplan  

Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism Evil?

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The Virtues of Price Discrimin... Off Topic, But...
Todd Seavey's awfully unhappy about the rise of bleeding-heart libertarianism.  He begins by describing his recent experience with bleeding-heart non-libertarians:
I saw a lecture by (charming, charismatic, funny) Brown professor of Africana studies Tricia Rose last night, and it was a reminder how ludicrous the task is that the "bleeding-heart libertarians" have set for themselves in wanting to incorporate "social justice" into the heart of libertarian thinking...

[...]

[I]t seemed to boil down to (or rather be a taken-for-granted synonym for) talk of wealth redistribution, fighting to preserve big-government programs like Obamacare, and, even more creepily, encouragement of people like the school teacher who says he is looking forward to teaching ninth-graders to be social justice activists themselves.  Why, that's just bound to mean a more libertarian society, right? 

Perhaps the most condescending and authoritarian bit, though, was when Rose had the whole audience raise their right hands to recite a long, long pledge she had written about how to work toward social justice without blaming yourself for society's past sins - and she had people begin pledging and reciting before telling them what they would be swearing to.
Todd's question: Why on earth would libertarians want to make nice with people like this?
These are our philosophical kin, Zwolinski (and Tomasi and Levy)?  But not those awful moderate Republican types who talk about markets and individualism all the time, of course.  Well, you go to the family reunion next time, then, because I don't have the patience for it anymore.  Nor for any further BHL nonsense.
Todd then all but calls bleeding-heart libertarianism an intellectual cancer:
If you treasure your status as intellectuals as much as you seem to, there comes a time to admit you're wrong, and it would be impressive and admirable for the BHL faction to do so immediately after the release of the liberal-tarian manifesto Free Market Fairness.  Indeed, they are plainly morally obligated to do so, as, all joking aside, they are attempting to dilute the one philosophy that can save this society by transmuting it into the very philosophy that is rapidly destroying society, on campus and in Washington, DC. 

There is not some aspect of this that their opponents "don't get," "need to study more," or are "resisting."  BHL is false and destructive, and, as usual, I have been entirely too kind in my criticisms.  I will not continue to be if they persist in this self-indulgent,
socially destructive, historically-ignorant con game.  What they are doing is, in a word, evil.
Frankly, Todd's going overboard.  I agree that the philosophers and activists of "social justice" are extremely unlikely to change their minds.  As Obi-Wan tells Anakin, they are lost.  But they're still very much worth addressing.  When you debate, you don't talk to your opponent in order to change his mind.  (Yea, right).  You talk to your opponent in order change the minds of the undecided members of the audience.  Bleeding-heart libertarians aren't going to convince social justice activists that "Libertarianism delivers what you want."  Bleeding-heart libertarians may however convince the undecided that "Libertarianism delivers what social justice activists want."

But my defense of bleeding-heart libertarianism is more than merely strategic.  While I often disagree with bleeding-heart libertarians, they deserve credit for pointing out the many neglected ways that government hurts the truly poor.  Bleeding-heart libertarians realize, for example, that free migration is not just one issue among many, but the central libertarian issue of our time.  Their willingness to play Jiminy Cricket for libertarians and leftists alike far outweighs their admittedly annoying habit of taking John Rawls seriously.

But let me go further.  The anger in Todd's denunciation convinces me that his targets have a valuable lesson to teach him.  In my experience, bleeding-heart libertarians exemplify a rhetorical virtue that libertarians desperately need to enhance: friendliness.  Calling people "evil" because they slightly disagree with you isn't just unfair.  It's strategic suicide.  See Monty Python's Life of Brian

Yes, even the most pleasant conversation usually fails to change people's minds.  But pleasant conversation is far more persuasive than unpleasant conversation.  And in the long-run, unpleasant conversation usually leads to no conversation at all.  Bleeding-heart libertarians really are broadening the audience for libertarian ideas.  A big part of the reason is that they know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
 

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Todd Seavey writes:

The occasional unfriendly phrase can be useful for rapping the noses of people a bit too in love with their own endless conversation, though. And it seems as if the Ron Paulites' anti-government rage is winning far, far more converts than the liberal-tarians have, though I'd love to see stats as much the liberal-tarians would.

Much as I hate to place myself at odds with Aristotle, who advised always starting with rhetorical common ground, I think whether to go the diplomatic route depends on the audience. I find that there's little to be gained, for instance, from giving religious people a rhetorical inch because they'll take the tiniest crumb as affirmation that "even the atheist is starting to get it and come around." Better to tell them frankly, up front, "There is no God," or you will simply never get their full mental attention.

I fear the endlessly-ornate, centuries-long dialogue in which the liberal-tarians wish to remain enmeshed is a comparably deceptively-cozy fog. As with liberals in general, the last thing they need is to be reassured that in some sense they really do hold the moral and intellectual high ground.

And it's worth stepping back for a moment and asking why, in a world already morbidly government-run, we would _want_ to make libertarianism sound more compatible with governmental and welfarist modes of thought. It strikes me as being as insane a tactic as ditching atheism in favor of becoming very, very deeply enmeshed in whatever the hottest topics in Catholic theology have been in the last two centuries, in hopes of subtly steering the church toward a 2% increase in secularism.

If there are things the liberal-tarians think government does well, I'd suggest they're wrong, and if they don't think there are things government does well, they'd be wise to underscore the inviolability of property rights at every possible turn.

How seriously, I wonder, would the liberal-tarians take people who claimed they were going to "improve" the philosophy of unrestricted free speech by reminding everyone that speech has a long history of being "weighed against other values" and that as well-informed sophisticates, we should re-immerse ourselves in that multi-variable understanding of speech. Would anyone in his right mind suggest that was likely to foster _less_ censorship?

So it is, obviously, with efforts to convince people to leaven property rights with countless other humanitarian concerns and values -- for each of which the state has already proven it is more than happy to try some non-property solution. Stop speaking the master's language and encourage more chain-breaking.

David Friedman writes:

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.

Curt Doolittle writes:

@David/@Bryan

RE: "they insist that social justice ought to be part of libertarianism but are unwilling to tell us what it means."

Thats right. They have no program, no argument, no artifice. Only a sentiment. This is why they'll fail.

But libertarianism, or at least propertarian reasoning, provides the solution to 'social justice' -- if that term has any meaning other than 'redistribution'. But it requires institutional means of implementing that solution: The insight is that the ethic of voluntary exchange does not require unanimity of belief in anything. Only that government is a means by which we can construct exchanges between groups that are not possible to construct by alternative means due to pervasive 'cheating'. Cheating which is beneficial in a market for consumer goods, but a form of privatization or corruption when applied to infrastructure or services (commons). Institutions are necessary.

The problem is constructing institutions that allow exchanges between groups. Even assuming representative government is a good, if for no other purpose than to divide the labor of decision making, the classical liberal model of multi-class government should have been expanded and reinforced so that classes could conduct exchanges, most of which are inter-temporal borrowings from one another. Instead we undermined that feature of the classical liberal government.

Anarchism has stolen libertarianism. We don't need to give up on institutions. We need to give up on creating institutions that depend on a unanimity of belief in ends, means and virtues. A requirement that does not pass the most casual scrutiny.

Most 'justice' is simply accounting for and settlement of differences in production cycles. There is no reason we cannot bring forward to the disadvantaged the benefits of the difference in production cycles, in the same way we bring forward productivity through borrowing and interest.

There is no reason that is, other than we lack the political institutions to accomplish in politics what we accomplish daily in banking as a matter of course.

That's the answer to bleeding heart libertarianism: institutions.

Kevin V writes:

David, Tomasi's new book, Free-Market Fairness, provides an account of libertarian social justice. JT has tried pretty hard to explain himself.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Always funny to hear someone talking about how a group is "destroying society" toss around accusations of being condescending. Thanks for the laugh, Todd. I enjoyed it.

James writes:

Daniel,

Seavy points out that a group of people condescend to others while promoting destructive ideas and you find this funny. Would a comprehensive list of groups that are both condescending and destructive be a real laugh fest to you too? Maybe I just have an odd sense of humor but I don't see how it's funny.

RPLong writes:

Here-here, Bryan. I don't typically agree with the BHLs, but what kind of civilization do we live in if ideologies can't be compared and contrasted via civil dialogue? Socrates is spinning in his grave.

Hume writes:

"Well, you go to the family reunion next time, then, because I don't have the patience for it anymore. Nor for any further BHL nonsense."

How about the patience for foreign wars? Strict immigration? Corporate welfare? The "War on Crime"? The "Drug War"? Why the patience for these "Moderate" Republicans who snug up and indulge in these most destructive policies for the last 50 years?

Bryan, while I am sympathetic to your anti-Rawlsianism, I find it depressing that you do not take him seriously. It is also depressing that many pop-libertarians seem to be completely ignorant of Joseph Raz.

Jeff writes:

I'm more in line with Seavey and David Friedman, above. I take the point about being friendlier and more conversable and all, but at its core, bleeding heart libertarianism strikes me as an ideology consisting of a healthy respect for markets (good!), too little respect for public choice theory (bad!), and some white guilt and economic egalitarianism in the mold of '60's and '70's leftist academia (really bad!).

To me, this represents an improvement over modern liberalism and probably neo-liberalism, at least, so to the extent they win converts from the left, I wish them success. To the extent they win converts from other parts of the ideological spectrum...well, that's a much different story, now isn't it?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

James -
What I find funny is that the accusation of being condescending comes in such a condescending way.

There are condescending people out there. To call them out on that and have a shred of credibility, I usually think it's worth seeing value in other people's position yourself. I don't always agree with BHLs and I don't always agree with liberal social justice types. But Todd's case here is a lot more condescending than anything I've heard out of a BHL or a liberal in the recent past.

David P writes:

Great post Brian. I agree wholeheartedly.

David Friedman wrote:
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.

I think you can define "social justice" better by defining a social injustice. It seems that a social injustice occurs when an anticipated outcome does not come about and social justice is a means to correct that outcome. As a result it tends to be arbitrary and depends on the interpreter.

RPLong writes:

Kuehn:

Condescending, really? I don't find it condescending, myself. Dismissive and belligerent, yes. But I don't think Seavey patronizes the BHLers, I think he just calls them evil.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Why, o'why do such intelligent people keep writing about "The Government" doing or not doing things, when all are perfectlly aware that humans are doing and not doing those things through the mechanisms of government.

Governments don't do anything; people do.

When you talk otherwise you are back at Rouseau's general "will."

Why get all hung up in the rhetorical use of a phrase (which Father Coughlin was using back in my youth)?

Why not concentrate on an understanding of Justice (without modifiers)in a social order. "What is Justice in Thebes is not Justice in Athens."

Let us assume that Justice in any particular social order is the performance of those obligations (individual and in the aggregate)that are recognized, understood and accepted with sufficient commonality to provide cohesion in that social order.

We then come to the issues of how those obligations are to be performed, and by whom. If we decide that there is an (or several) obligation(s) of entitlements for some (mitigations of suffering and misery, education, water ...)others have obligations to provide them. There may be some logic to determining (how??) that performance shall be joint (social) rather than several. Which brings into issue how shall the determinations be made, who shall make them and how the imposition of obligations through social (including governmental) instrumentalities impacts individual "Liberty."

What lies behind the rhetorical use of phrases is the desire and intent to structure obligations in a particular way to attain a particular concept of a "proper" social order.

It is those ongoing attempts at such structuring to replace the natural evolution of human interactions, that among their evil (even if not intended) effects, suppress liberty.

Jeff writes:
How about the patience for foreign wars? Strict immigration? Corporate welfare? The "War on Crime"? The "Drug War"? Why the patience for these "Moderate" Republicans who snug up and indulge in these most destructive policies for the last 50 years?

Because moderate Democrats are just as bad on all those issues?

Saturos writes:

David Friedman,

Sir, I admire your work and your blog. One question though: Not to be impertinent, but didn't your father also hold a view roughly that capitalism should be seen as socially just precisely because it in fact did more than any other system in history to help the poor? Wasn't this Friedrich Hayek's view as well?

Jeff, My most glaring objection to BHL is it's refusal to acknowledge that the left-wing account of exploitation is a simple fallacy. I even commented on their blog saying this, somewhere.

Todd wrote:

How seriously, I wonder, would the liberal-tarians take people who claimed they were going to "improve" the philosophy of unrestricted free speech by reminding everyone that speech has a long history of being "weighed against other values" and that as well-informed sophisticates, we should re-immerse ourselves in that multi-variable understanding of speech.

If the status quo was one where people were already doing this "weighing against other values", and the speech liberaltarian merely tried to steer that weighing in favor of more freedom as opposed to simply declaring point blank that the right to speech is inviolable and then going off and sulking in a corner when everyone else ignores him; then why yes, Todd, I do think that could lead to marginal improvements in the direction of liberty. (There is a reason why hardcore libertarians have often been referred to as "Marxists of the Right".)

Philosophy as a process of inquiry and discovery, anyone?

Saturos writes:

@R Richard Schweitzer, so any set of practices in some society which provide cohesion for that society are just? Female genital mutilation, slavery, human sacrifice, for instance?

yet another david writes:

I also tend to agree with Seavey/Friedman as above.

Some additional thoughts:

1) I didn’t think Todd Seavey’s piece was particularly aggressive – certainly nothing like the anger directed at libertarians by the left and right generally. Also, it seemed a good deal milder than what the BHLs and their ilk direct against Ron Paul et al. Perhaps that doesn’t count. Perhaps I’m just used to more rough and tumble in debate. Seavey called them out on what he perceived to be an element of self-indulgence or moral vanity, which, particularly if they are going to be critical of others, seems not out of line. I tend to be suspicious of “he’s hurt my feelings” or “he’s been condescending” as a response to an argument – it sounds like an excuse to ignore the substance/divert attention or an attempt to narrow the scope of debate.

2) As far as I can tell, the BHLs seem to be yet another group that wants a small state except in those “special” cases in which it does not. The special cases where intervention is favored vary by group. In the case of neocons, for example, even though they claim a preference for free markets and liberty, they want a large state for war and “security”. This “small-state-except-for-where-I-want-it-to-be-big” approach seems to me to be self-defeating from a libertarian perspective because it grants legitimacy to the state. “Matter of degree” arguments lose because they have already conceded the moral high ground to one’s adversaries.

3) Calling people "evil" appears to have worked out very well indeed for the Left over the last 50 years.

Hume writes:

"Jeff, My most glaring objection to BHL is it's refusal to acknowledge that the left-wing account of exploitation is a simple fallacy. I even commented on their blog saying this, somewhere."

Saturos, in the page you link to, Bryan seems to assume that "exploitation" is partly defined as (or the nature of the concept is such that) "those exchanges that make one party worse off." I have not thought about this, but I'm not sure I agree (or if that is the nature of "exploitation," then a different concept could easily take its place). Exploitation seems to involve not necessarily making one party worse off; rather, it involves taking unfair advantage of one party's very unfortunate situation. This helps explain the common intuition that the dehydrated man in the desert is required to promises to pay $10,000 for a glass of water., but he is not morally bound by such a promise ("reasonable" reimbursement would suffice). Perhaps many in the grips of Rothbard or Rand would deny this intuition. So much the worse for them (and Bryan's case for intuitionism).

Glen Smith writes:

I consider myself a bleeding heart libertarian. In fact, I came to libertarianism because I realized that almost all of the transfer of wealth attributable to government programs moved wealth from the poor (well, actually the low end middle class) to the wealthy either directly on indirectly.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Saturos

I speak of obligations and their performance, not the diverse cultural practices that may exist within various forms of social orders.

However, you have struck upon an example in the treatment of females, in which certain obligations (observing a concept of chastity)are imposed, forcing performance which coheres with the commonality of a belief system in a particular social order.

We have our own history with Eugenics of very recent times,once found to be just. But, other obligations have prevailed.

No, practices are not the measure of justice in any society, though they may be the expressions of the impositions of, and requirements of performance of, obligations; or, of the accepted modes of performance.

To weigh your other examples, are wars just? Consider the obligations imposed, which match human sacrifice and slavery (as well as de-humanization of others). Yes, social orders determine that wars are just according to their determinations of obligations.

David P writes:

@ Richard Schweitzer

"Why, o'why do such intelligent people keep writing about "The Government" doing or not doing things, when all are perfectlly aware that humans are doing and not doing those things through the mechanisms of government."

By that same token "Walmart" doesn't do anything. However when I say "Walmart is building a store in my area" people still know what I am talking about.

yet another david writes:

@Hume:

This helps explain the common intuition that the dehydrated man in the desert is required to promises to pay $10,000 for a glass of water., but he is not morally bound by such a promise ("reasonable" reimbursement would suffice).

I think most people have a deep dread of absolute personal responsibility or self-reliance. They are unwilling to rely on the prospect of assistance voluntarily given should they find themselves in a difficult position. Consequently, they favour a duty.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ David P -

The effect of reification of "Government" is easily distinguished from the custom of referring to the actions of persons operating as a"firm" under the label of a private corporation.

The problem with that reification is exactly because there is not a common understanding of what is being "talked about."

We encounter this constantly: "The County has decided to . . ." which can be a cover for the actions of specific interests effected through that agency, or the expression of views limited to few or extending to many, etc.

The use of "Government" as a meaningful term in the discussions of "society," must be more than a label. Usually, when we are talking about what the mechanisms of government are or are not to be used for, we need to know how and why and by whom, and to what ends chosen by whom; otherwise just saying "government" will not explain anything.

Evan writes:

@Richard Schweitzer

Let us assume that Justice in any particular social order is the performance of those obligations (individual and in the aggregate)that are recognized, understood and accepted with sufficient commonality to provide cohesion in that social order.
I think that justice is a usually used as a term for a family of concepts that are related to balance, fairness, and symmetry in social interaction. Rather than try to find a perfect definition of "justice" I usually just refer to the concepts as Justice(1) Justice(2) etc.

For instance, Justice(1) refers to the state of affairs in which a criminal has been made to pay for their crime, restoring social balance, Justice(2) refers to a state of affairs where everyone in society has to follow the same rules, and Justice(3)(also called "social justice") refers to a society where people have relatively equal amounts of certain goods such as wealth and status.

Everyone cares about Justice(1), although many libertarians and liberals are concerned that attempts to achieve it result in the police violating Justice(2). Libertarians care a lot about Justice(2), but dislike Justice(3), mainly because achieving it often interferes with achieving Justice(2). Liberals are the opposite, they like Justice(3) and resent Justice(2) because it gets in the way of achieving Justice(3). BHLs seem to care about both Justice(2) and Justice(3) and seek some sort of compromise. I am sympathetic to this position.

@yet another david

As far as I can tell, the BHLs seem to be yet another group that wants a small state except in those “special” cases in which it does not. The special cases where intervention is favored vary by group.
I don't see anything necessarily inconsistent about that. Most people think that freedom is a good thing. But most people also think there are some instances where freedom has disastrous consequences for some reason and therefore, tragically, needs to be curtailed. All those various political factions simply disagree on what the particular circumstances where freedom needs to be restricted. Of course, the fact that there's so much disagreement might actually be a sign it needs to be curtailed far less often than most people think.

Xerographica writes:

[Comment removed for policy violations.--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Klein writes:

I applaud the BHLs for wanting to talk and affirm justice beyond commutative justice.

I think it is good for libertarians to discuss different senses of justice, to see that there are senses beyond commutative justice, and to affirm senses beyond commutative justice.

In the sort of scheme I would offer, and I am working on this, which is based especially on interpretations of Adam Smith, none of the senses are sensibly called "social justice." In fact, "social justice" would be a very bad label for any of the senses I look to affirm.

And words matter. A lot.

Saturos writes:

@Dan Klein, I think it's exceedingly rare for non-commutative justice to override commutative justice. Don't you?

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Evan

Actually, elsewhere, I have extended the analysis further in encompassing the other ways in which social orders have adapted those various concepts for what is "just" in human relations with one another and with their surroundings.

Because of the "need" for predictability recurrent in the evolution of social orders, the most universal element of conduct I could determine was that which is most closely or fully defined as obligations.

It is very difficult to simplify what is regarded as the concept of "just" and how it comes to be so in diverse social orders, as you are probably well aware.
So, I use that "assumption."

Daniel Klein writes:

@Saturos: I don't disagree, but what you suggest is something to be argued. A suitable larger scheme of justices is useful in addressing it -- It would be from beyond-CJ senses of justice that you consider and perhaps acknowledge exceptions, and it would be from beyond-CJ senses that you judge that the upshot is the strong presumption of liberty. The warrants for CJ come from beyond CJ.

Saturos writes:

As someone who agrees with David Friedman, I agree that the process of reasoning by which we test our intuitions should encompass all forms of moral justification.

Daniel Klein writes:

@Saturos: Absolutely, that is how we do things justice.

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