of liberals, libertatarians, and bleeding hearts

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski has been pushing the idea of “bleeding heart libertarians,” which he means, I think, a merging of the libertarian advocacy of markets and the liberal concern with social justice. Not surprisingly, there’s been push back from various quarters. One criticism is that that the whole idea is nonsensical. I’m not sure if I buy the bleeding heart libertarian idea,  but here’s how, as a softie and bleeding heart, I’d try to merge the two ideas.

Josh Brennan, a fellow bleeding heart libertarian, offers a definition of social justice that focuses on helping the poor and the vulnerable (e.g., markets are just only if they help low income people). Such definitions leave a bleeding heart like me cold because they don’t capture an important dimension of bleeding heart-ism, the fact that societies have groups that have been screwed over and that we have some duty to help history’s losers or at least not make their live worse. I’d start my discussion of social justice by making the following statements, which underwrite the bleeding heart view, and then think about whether other ideas are compatible:

  1. Complex societies have status groups, they are stratified. These status groups aren’t  always based on merit, but based on custom and tradition. In many cases, they are based on violence and warfare.
  2. These status differences matter a lot. Material and symbolic goods are often handed out based on these group memberships. Group membership entails deference and privilege.
  3. The benefits and disadvantages of status group membership are enforced in multiple ways. It can be legal, social, or even tacit.

If you start with these statements, you can have productive discussion about how social justice fits in various political philosophies. Conservatives often celebrate #1, defend #2 and deny #3. That is, the conservative response to status group inequality is often to accept it and say it is natural, defend the rewards bases on status, and refuse to change law or custom in ways that would challenge the dominant. In contrast, liberals reject #1, challenge #2, and attack #3. The combined liberal response to status-based inequality might be termed “social justice.” What liberals mean is that the institutions that support sorting people into groups based on ascribed status are illegitimate. The just thing is for some person or some organization (e.g., the state) to eliminate, or ameliorate, these types of status groups and their privileges.

Once you lay it out, one can see how libertarians don’t quite fit in either box, which is why Zwolinski and his fellow travelers are angling for a libertarian/liberal meeting point. As hard core individualists, libertarians are pretty comfortable with rejecting #1. They don’t believe that the state should make distinctions among people based on social class, race, gender, tribe, religion, caste, or what have you. So they do share something very important with liberals. The extreme skepticism of existing group structures creates a real rift, in theory at least, with conservatives, who have usually been on the side of defending law and customs that benefit the dominant status group.

The libertarian divergence with liberals comes with #2 and #3.  A lot of libertarians, for example, believe status groups are manifestations of underlying differences in skill and ability. Racial differences in, say, educational attainment really do reflect underlying talent and work patterns. Libertarians also have a tough time believing that status groups are unfair unless they are created by the state. Finally, libertarians have a really hard time believing that people can benefit from their group status in the absence of legal sanctions. The concept of white privilege, for example, is one that they strongly resist.

Still, there is some room for Zwolinski’s bleeding heart libertarianism, but it’s not something that is highly compatible with liberal political theory. The key issue is that the libertarian skepticism toward claims of status group inequality does not necessarily follow from individualist theory. In other words, a belief in individual rights does not preclude someone from believing that males or whites benefit from their status, even in the absence of legalized segregation. It’s plausible to say that you believe in individual rights and market institutions and admit they are imperfect and that some people are disadvantaged because they belong to a group that has successfully created some rules or customs that benefit them.

This version of libertarianism, which is rare since I can’t think of any figure who articulates it except Zwolinski and Brennan,  is somewhat close in spirit to what liberals believe with regard to social justice.  Both parties agree on the problem. The issue that really splits the bleeding heart libertarian and the standard issue liberal is the solution. Liberals have a lot of confidence that democratic states have the potential to address status group inequality. Libertarians, not surprisingly, have the opposite view. They tend to see the state as a blunt instrument at best, or exacerbating the problem at worst. And of course, natural rights libertarians view just about all state action as suspect because it is based on the monopoly of force.

Even here, though, the liberal and bleeding heart libertarian could find points of agreement and cooperation. They agree that group based discrimination, status privilege, and oppression are real and bad. They disagree on the state as a solution. That doesn’t mean that liberals and libertarians can’t fight status inequality in other ways. There’s a side to modern liberalism that believes in the grassroots and local action. For example, there are lots of non-profits that work to help poor people and minorities get housing. No reason a libertarian couldn’t volunteer to help out. Similarly, a lot of liberals believe that immigration law is harsh and creates a status divide between citizens and non-citizens. There are lots of voluntary organizations that help immigrants and they are a context where liberals and bleeding heart libertarians could agree.

Social justice, as it is often understood, is hard to square with libertarian theory and culture. Zwolinski’s views will find a limited audience. But that doesn’t mean the bleeding heart libertarian is out of luck. There’s a lot of ways libertarians can pursue social justice can be pursued if they took the time to hang with the local immigrant rights groups or housing non-profit.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

6 Responses

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  1. Hey Prof. Rojas, do you know of any work that gives the demographics of American libertarians? I know that that is a bit of a vague question, since there are many variants: Cato, Austrian, Tea Party (though I question whether that brand of libertarianism should really be called that).

    So I guess I’m asking what the demographics of Libertarian Party or Ron Paul supporters are
    (but I also think that Ron Paul supporter-demographics can be tricky too – a lot of young “progressive” seem enamored with him just for his stance on foreign policy and civil liberties while paying little attention to economics in general)



    May 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

  2. Great discussion, Fabio. You hit the nail on the head. I probably got into sociology in the first place, in part, because of my bleeding heart libertarian proclivities. I know all the BHL guys are philosophers but for me the underlying notion of bleeding heart libertarian has always been less of a comprehensive philosophy and more of a pragmatic guidepost for me. Issues such as immigration, the war on drugs, occupational licensing, the war on terror, regressive taxation, and corporate welfare all take precedence over other concerns. It’s a matter of emphasis. Most of these are state activities that liberals nominally oppose but may not be on their radar as much as taxing the rich, introducing anti-disrimination laws. and pumping more money into public schools.

    The problem also stems from the fact that too many liberals use the concept of group privilege as a trump card. In their minds, if you ackowledge group privilege then you must necessarily concede that state action follows as the solution. Not many people feel the need to articulate why this is the case so the discussion is often cut short once you concede the existance of group privilege.



    May 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm

  3. @andy: If I were serius about this, i’d first check the political science literature on third parties. Then, I’d check the GSS and NES.



    May 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm

  4. @joshmccabe.

    i was wondering what bleeding-heart libertarian solutions were for undoing group privilege and entrenched power.



    May 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm

  5. The BHL label fits me, but that said, the discussion opens with problematic claims.

    it is also true that “party politics” tends to find about a 40% to 60% conformance or correlation across members as individuals. In other words, people who self-identify with a group tend to be mostly in accord with its actual values and goals, whether a city bowling league or the GOP. So, indentifying who speaks for bleeding heart libertarians – or any other unorganized collective – is a problem to be solved.

    Then, there is the problem of individualism. Genetic studies of twins are interesting. The differences between pairs of “identical” persons are also compelling. Fingerprints are just one example. The IQ test scores of identical twins raised in the same home correlate only 85% (not 100%). People make choices. In The Same and not the Same Nobel laureate chemist Roald Hoffmann shows that perhaps no two hemoglobin molecules are identically “the same.” So, it is no surprise to me that I work with a Native American systems analyst who loves the culture of origin but shrugs and says, “On the reservation, education was not important, but I thought it was.” We all make choices.

    As little as I like Murray Rothbard, he was cogent in pointing the many opposites between power and market. BHLs find opportunity in the market, which, if freed from political power will allow as much opportunity as each of us can find or make.



    May 3, 2012 at 11:08 am

  6. […] who were not as single-mindedly focused on the state. But until libertarians learn to lose their knee-jerk hostility to concepts such as “white privilege,” we still have a long way to […]


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