Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

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Over at Cato Unbound this month, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a piece exploring what they term Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  (Matt founded an excellent blog entitled Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  John has a new book out entitled Free Market Fairness.)

To get a sense of what Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is, Matt described the common core of the bloggers at the Bleeding Heart Libertarianism blog as follows:

What we have in common on this blog is an appreciation for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty.  But we appreciate those things, in large part, because of the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods.

One way to describe this is that Bleeding Heart Libertarians believe in both freedom and social justice.

I am very enthusiastic about this new blog and new movement within libertarianism because I have always been a Bleeding Heart Libertarian.  I think part of the reason is that I came to libertarianism from the left and thus a concern for the poor always seemed like a compelling value to me.

Even in my most libertarian period – my Nozickian phase during the late 1970s – I was always trying to come up with arguments for why strict libertarian rights required special benefits for the poor.  The rectification portion of Nozick’s theory of justice struck me as being very significant.  Perhaps I can post about some of these ideas in the future.

In the 1980s, I wrote an article arguing for a system of private unemployment insurance rather than government unemployment insurance.  In making this argument, I compared the two systems based on a broad range of values – on efficiency, distributive fairness, free choice, worker responsibility and security – and concluded that private unemployment insurance would be superior.  Distributive fairness was an important part of the analysis.

At that time, I also defended the view that, under the Rawlsian principles, classical liberalism was the best political system.  I had picked up that argument from James Buchanan, who I believe was the first person to argue this, doing so in an article in 1970s.

These proto-BHL ideas are now within the core of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  In the 1990s, Daniel Shapiro, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarian bloggers, wrote an article entitled “Why Rawlsian Liberals Should Support Free-Market Capitalism.”

Daniel Shapiro has also written a book, “Is the Welfare State Justified,” which adopts a similar methodology to my private unemployment insurance article.  In a sophisticated philosophical treatment, he compares private and government insurance on a variety of values, and concludes that private insurance is superior.

Thus, I am very happy to see that libertarianism is branching out.  I suppose that some libertarians will see these developments as weakening libertarian principles, but I am not one of them.  As Matts says, “libertarianism . . . is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.”

In my next post on this subject, I hope to address how a concern for the poor and for liberty can be incorporated into a coherent philosophical system.