Bleeding Heart Libertarianism IV

In my prior posts, I explained how I have always been a Bleeding Heart Libertarian who is concerned about the effects of liberty on the poor and how I now base my political views on a utilitarian approach.  Under that approach, the diminishing marginal utility of money is one strong reason for considering social programs for the poor but there are a variety of other reasons, such as incentive effects, the crowding out of charity, and public choice failures, for rejecting such programs.  In my last post, I want to consider in more concrete terms where I think these principles lead me concerning a country like the United States.

First, the easiest way to pursue a Bleeding Heart Libertarian approach is to identify and seek to eliminate interferences in the market that operate to harm the poor.   There are many regulations that prevent the provision of services that would benefit the poor as well as other regulations that prevent the poor from being employed.  Many regulations do great harm to the poor by raising prices for goods and services that they could otherwise purchase at cheaper prices, such as regulations involving health care, health insurance, the environment, and zoning, to name just a few.  Other regulations also harm the poor by making it more difficult for them to enter a large number of trades from hair styling to driving taxis.  In addition, there are ineffective public schools in poor neighborhoods that the poor are largely forced to attend, which could otherwise be avoided through the use of vouchers.

Second, there are serious problems created by the social insurance programs that justify their elimination.  These programs, from retirement pensions, to medical care, to unemployment insurance, operate in the main not to benefit the poor, but to transfer funds to the politically powerful, such as the elderly or organized labor.  When one considers just how much is paid by lower income people in payroll taxes for these programs the harm is quite significant.

Eliminating these regulations and social insurance programs would do enormous amounts to help the poor and would be entirely consistent with libertarian principles.  This leaves the most difficult issue: whether it makes sense to have programs that are focused on benefiting the poor, such as medicaid or welfare.  Here, I think the arguments are close and it turns on how they are structured.  It is easy to imagine these programs creating problems, such as promoting out of wedlock births or disincentivising work, but one can also imagine such programs leading to net benefits.  In the end, then, I am largely agnostic about these programs, viewing them as potentially beneficial if well designed and not overly generous.  But I don’t think the case is obvious and its quite possible that the nation and the poor would be better off without any such programs.

In the end, then, a utilitarian approach, based on a correct understanding of how institutions actually operate, can be a pretty libertarian one, while still giving serious consideration to the interests of the poor.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. Richard Schweitzer says

    Hopefully, this carping will not be too tiresome. But, let us begin.

    Misdirection begins when the focus of concern is stated as “the effects of Liberty on the poor.”

    The focus of concern is “the effects of the form of representative government on the poor.”
    (as the contents of the text disclose)

    In its present iteration, this form has become the representation of interests rather than a representation of commonly held principles of former ideology.

    The citations in the text of actions, “programs,” “regulations,” “public education” all reference or imply functions of government. The text does not include a reference to “utilitarian” tests for those functions. They seem to be “assumed” as accepted or necessary [?] functions.

    The fundamental issues in Libertarianism are the functions of government and the effects of those functions on Liberty.

    There is nothing wrong with showing, as the text does, the effects of those functions on the poor (or on any segment). There is nothing wrong with saying that in addition to those effects on Liberty (of prime concern to Libertarians) there should be [equal?]concern with other effects.

    However, such demonstration of the effects of those functions, without an examination of how those functions have come into being, in their particular shapes, through the representation of interests in a representative form of government will lead nowhere.

  2. Richard Schweitzer says

    The invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the Constituents.” –James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1788

  3. says

    Instead of all the bleeding heart nonsense why not just read Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism and you’ll have all your questions answered in one sitting.

  4. says

    I don’t understand being “concerned about the effects of liberty on the poor.” It makes no sense. Liberty is how you get out of being poor.

  5. Richard Schweitzer says

    Would you not agree that one form of test to determine “the legitimate ones” of the “aspects of government” might be that we can identify their utility?

    Of course one can not expect a short blog to describe the tests, but surely to reference the applicability.

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