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 [...]