The Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog

Several prominent libertarian political philosophers have recently joined together to form the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog. Participants include former VCer Jacob Levy, Jason Brennan of Brown University, and well-known law professor and former VC guest-blogger Fernando Teson. I am a big fan of several of the BHL bloggers’ work, including Brennan’s analysis of the ethics of voting (which I discussed here), and Teson’s work on deliberative democracy with Guido Pincione.

The main focus of the blog is the development of a version of libertarianism that combines broad economic and personal freedom with a small but nonzero welfare state (or at least the absence of any categorical opposition to such a state). This post by Jason Brennan explains in greater detail.

This kind of minimal welfare state libertarianism is not a new idea. It is in fact similar to the view held by great libertarian thinkers such as Milton Friedman (inventor of the negative income tax), F.A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and others. It is, however, unfamiliar to most nonlibertarian political philosophers, who tend to know only the version of libertarianism propounded by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, under which (as Brennan puts it) “justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society.” The BHL bloggers are performing a valuable service in making other versions of libertarianism better known to their fellow philosophers, and even more so by developing the analytical foundations of those views in their scholarship.

Some of the BHL writers, such as Jacob Levy, hope that this version of libertarianism can revive the idea of a “liberaltarian” alliance between libertarians and liberals. I am skeptical of the political prospects for liberaltarianism for reasons that I elaborated here and here.

Levy emphasizes that most government economic intervention doesn’t benefit the poor, and much of it actually harms them:

So libertarianism as a doctrine in political philosophy had this distinctive contribution to make: it rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor. I think by gradual drift, that came to seem like all libertarianism was concerned with…….

But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action. This is politically predictable, almost trivially so. But that means that the focus on libertarianism’s apparent philosophical difference with Rawlsian liberalism gives us a very distorted sense of the work libertarians could do politically in the world. We don’t live in a Rawlsian world, separated from Nozick’s by the existence of poverty-alleviation programs. We live in a world characterized by massive state action of all sorts, most of which does nothing to alleviate poverty and a great deal of which is actively regressive or harmful to the worst-off.

Hence, a rhetorical justification for B-HL or liberaltarianism. Let us not talk as if the set of policies endorsed by Rawls and not by Nozick somehow makes up most of the action of a state we’re supposed to be in the business of trying to limit.

David Stockman’s stated goal of targeting budget cuts on “weak claims, not weak clients” was in a sense obviously politically doomed. But that doesn’t alter the imperative to try to do as he said he wanted to do.

Levy therefore argues that libertarians and liberals can find common ground in opposing a variety of government interventions that restrict liberty in order to benefit the non-poor, often at the expense of the disadvantaged. I am sympathetic to Levy’s argument and have made similar points myself (e.g. – here and here).

The problem is that the vast majority of liberals do not agree; most of them support a wide range of government interventions that are intended to benefit groups other than the poor, sometimes even at the expense of the latter. That’s one of the reasons why Brink Lindsey’s original 2006 proposal for a liberaltarian alliance found few if any takers on the left, even though it was based on much the same premises as Levy’s (libertarians agreeing to accept a welfare state that benefits the poor in exchange for liberals joining libertarians in opposing a wide range of other interventionist policies). This state of affairs could change if liberal thought moves in a more pro-market direction (as it did in the 1980s and 90s), or if liberals suffer severe political reverses that make them desperate for new political allies (though libertarians are not the only possible allies they could try to court). For the moment, however, I doubt that either BHL or any other platform is likely to lead to a liberaltarian alliance any time soon.

The real value of BHL thought, however, resides not in building a political coalition but in its intrinsic intellectual merit. With some reservations, I accept the the BHLers’ claim that a version of libertarianism that doesn’t categorically rule out all positive welfare rights is more defensible than one that does. I also think that they have valuable contributions to make a on a variety of other issues as well. BHL is unlikely to become the foundation for a new liberaltarian political coalition. But I’m confident that it will make a valuable contribution to public discourse, which is ultimately all you can ask of a blog.