Bleeding Heart Libertarianism and “Social Justice”

The Cato Unbound website recently hosted an interesting debate over efforts by “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” to incorporate “social justice” into libertarian political theory. In the lead essay, “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” political philosophers Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi argue that libertarianism is best defended not on the basis of absolute rights to property and self-ownershp, but on the grounds that it benefits the poor and the “least well off” members of society. They argue that this approach is superior to the property rights absolutism they associate with libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

As Zwolinski and Tomasi recognize, consequentialist considerations – including the impact of public policy on the poor – is far from a new idea in libertarian political thought. They note that 18th and 19th century libertarians repeatedly emphasized the negative effects of activist government on the poor as one of the justifications for restricting its power. In more recent times, such libertarians as Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and many of the public choice economists have made similar arguments. The same is true of some of my own work on property rights, federalism, and the War on Drugs, and co-blogger David Bernstein’s work on labor regulation. Many of the above writers – including Friedman and Hayek – also argued that libertarianism is, at least in theory, compatible with a minimal welfare state focused on providing support to those of the poor who are genuinely incapable of supporting themselves.

In his response to Zwolinski and Tomasi, economist David Friedman points out that much of what they argue for is better justified by utilitarian considerations. Many prominent libertarian scholars – including Friedman – are utilitarians and defend libertarian institutions on primarily utilitarian consequentialist grounds. On that basis, the interests of the poor surely count no less than that of other people.

Despite the above continuity with prior libertarian thought, there are two important distinctive aspects to the BHL project. The first is the philosophical rigor with which they lay out the case for a version of libertarianism that leaves room for (tightly constrained) positive rights for the poor. I can’t fully cover this aspect of BHL in a blog post. But interested readers should consult Tomasi’s excellent recent book Free Market Fairness and various posts at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog.

The second is the use of the term “social justice” itself, which is usually associated with the left. Previous libertarian thinkers – including those who willing to accept a limited welfare state – generally eschewed this terminology. Hayek famously denounced the concept. This, I think, is what draws the ire of some critics of BHL, such as Todd Seavey. He seems to be concerned that adopting the terminology of social justice is a political dead end for libertarians, or at least likely to cut off possible alliances with conservatives.

I think Seavey’s critique is overblown, for reasons well articulated by Bryan Caplan. Furthermore, I highly doubt that allowing for the possibility of a limited welfare state will somehow prevent libertarians from forming alliances with conservatives. After all, most conservatives support some form of limited welfare state too (often a much larger one than even the most moderate libertarians).

On the other hand, like David Friedman and Michael Rappoport, I’m not convinced that “social justice” does any useful analytical work that is not better done by utilitarianism. Like the BHLers, I am not a rights absolutist. Even very important rights must sometimes be sacrificed if the consequences of sticking to them are sufficiently dire. But I think that the utilitarian idea of concern for human happiness and well-being is a more compelling consequentialist ideal than social justice.

In addition, there is some ambiguity in the way BHLers use the term “social justice.” To many on the left, social justice goes far beyond merely providing a minimal standard of living for the poor. It includes a concern for promoting economic equality more generally. In a recent post, leading BHL advocate Jason Brennan suggests that the BHL definition of social justice is more limited than that, focusing only on the idea that “the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.”

This definition is hard for anyone to object to. Virtually any political theory recognizes that political institutions must protect the interests of “the least advantaged” at least to some degree (e.g. – they cannot be enslaved). However, as Bryan Caplan notes, a lot depends on how much consideration those interests are entitled to:

Does “depends” mean “depends to some extent”? Almost every moral theory says the same – including, as David [Friedman] points out, old-school utilitarianism. Does “depends” mean “depends entirely”? That seems implausibly absolutist – especially since “serving the interests of the poor and least advantaged” is (a) arguably supererogatory in the first place, and (b) dependent on how deserving the poor and least advantaged are.

On balance, I too am not convinced that the idea of social justice adds anything useful to libertarian thought that isn’t better captured by other concepts, such as utility. It’s also worth noting that not all BHL advocates endorse the idea of social justice. Jacob Levy, for example, does not. And, as Jason Brennan points out, endorsing a limited theory of “social justice” doesn’t necessarily require BHLers to embrace a large welfare state – or perhaps even a small one (Brennan calls himself “more or less an anarchist”). A BHLer who is highly pessimistic about the real-world impact of the welfare state on the poor could logically reject the welfare state.

Despite the ambiguity of their approach to social justice, I think the BHLers have made many valuable contributions to political theory. They are right to remind libertarians that we cannot be indifferent to the consequences of rights. They are also right to focus attention on the many different ways in which government intervention harms the poor rather than benefits them. Even if you believe that state-sponsored redistribution to the poor is necessary, the vast majority of the modern state actually provides benefits to the wealthy, the middle class, and organized interest groups – often at the expense of the poor. Finally, BHLers have made several advances in discussions of specific issues in political philosophy, most notably Jason Brennan’s work on the ethics of voting.

Ultimately, I think libertarians should reject both rights absolutism and absolute utilitarian consequentialism. The difficult question is how to strike the right balance between them. BHL doesn’t give us a completely satisfying answer, but it is a valuable contribution to the debate.

UPDATE: Brian Doherty gives a good summary of the BHL/social justice debate here, and Jason Brennan responds further to Bryan Caplan and David Friedman here.