Bleeding Heart Libertarianism: What is it and do we need it in the UK? (Part One)

January 6, 2013 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

Across the Atlantic, a small intellectual movement is beginning to grow in influence and size. Jokingly referring to itself as ‘bleeding heart libertarianism’ (BHL), it is focused on an attempt to fuse the libertarian values of individual liberty, economic property rights and a scepticism towards the state with a respect for social justice and defence of the poor and vulnerable often associated with the left. 

 Most importantly, BHL doesn’t, like most libertarian thought, believe that social justice is a natural by-product of market and non-state relationships which are themselves justified by other values, most notably the freedom of the individual. Instead, BHL believes that such relationships are only worthwhile to the extent to which they actively promote social justice and the well-being of the poor.  One leading BHL thinker, Matt Zwolinski, has suggested, for example, that unlike most other libertarians, BHLers would either reject or modify their prioritisation of market and non-state relationships if it could be shown that they do not benefit the poor and most vulnerable.

 This attempt to combine radical notions of individual liberty with social justice has prompted some very fresh discussion.  A post, for example, on the benefits of trade unions from a libertarian perspective and a debate launched by the suggestion that Occupy are a morally just movement.

 However, BHL is primarily a dialogue of political philosophers.  That gives it a great strength and a great weakness.  Its strength is that it is rigorous and thoughtful and, unlike much of what passes for libertarian commentary on the web, deeply respectful of alternative views. Indeed, BHLers seem particularly keen to engage in dialogue with the left. Its weakness is that it has a strongly philosophical focus and one has to search hard for detailed discussion about what might be the policy implications of BHL.

 This leads to another problem.  BHLers are clearer on three aspects of their political outlook than a crucial fourth.

They share the libertarian suspicion of the big state on economic issues and are critical of high tax, interventionist policies, ‘crony capitalism’ and the loose money policies of the Federal Reserve. 

However, unlike some of the loudest elements in the Tea Party (or indeed in UKIP) who might share these economic views, they are also  supportive of civil liberties in the form of gay rights, anti-racism, internet freedom, legalising marijuana use, feminism and more open immigration. 

They are also highly critical of American foreign policy opposing the ‘war on terror’, military action against Iran and other forms of intervention. (Although it must be reiterated here that BHL remains a dialogue of diverse views rather than a manifesto to which all sign up.)

 The commitment to social justice, however, is not nearly as clearly worked through as these three aspects.  That is maybe inevitable as it is the newest element introduced by BHL into the libertarian strand but it remains a frustration for anyone seeking a fresh perspective for these times when so many seem unable to secure a decent livelihood. 

This lacuna also results from the philosophical nature of BHL.  In particular, there is an ambiguity about whether social justice is primarily being employed as a philosophical justification for standard libertarian positions or whether an explicit concern for social justice means revisiting and rethinking some of those positions. It seems to me that unless it is the latter then the real world implications of BHL will be pretty limited. The extent to which some BHL proponents are fascinated by the work of Rawls (a philosophical high priest of the left) would suggest some quite significant rethinking which one might expect would result in a shift in political positions but that does not always seem to be acknowledged explicitly.

 However, I do think BHL has benefits which means it should be looked at closely by politically-minded sorts in the UK.  In particular, it is starting to develop an intellectually exciting position at a time of rather stale mainstream debate.  And it is a position that, despite its current limitations, could provide some useful perspectives as we face up to the awe-inspiring challenges confronting us after five years of financial and economic crisis. 

 I’ll explain why I think that in more detail in my next post.

 Reading etc on BHL:

The on-line home of BHL is the blog bleedingheartlibertarians.com. Probably the most detailed account of BHL thinking, so far, is John Tomasi’s 2012 book Free Market Fairness.  From a more political perspective, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico and 2012 Presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, Gary Johnson, has identified himself with BHL.

For a quick introduction to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, you can do worse than look at two posts by Matt Zwolinski here and here. And if you do not want to plough through John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness, you can watch a lecture he gave to the RSA here or a more detailed and longer talk he gave at the Adam Smith Institute here. There’s also a speech here by Gary Johnson.  It’s worth watching just because it is so interesting to see someone combine views that are traditionally associated both with the hard right and hard left under the banner of individual freedom.

Comments

  • AnthonyZacharzewski

    Hmm… possibly something interesting but if they reject the idea (the fairy story) that free-market mechanisms alone will deliver social justice, and want to maximise individual freedom while preserving social cohesion, aren’t they just vanilla Liberals?

    (Incidentally, I loathe the smug overtones of “bleeding heart” phraseology. Sure, repurpose an anti-compassion insult if you like but not like this.)

    • Adam Lent

      Possibly. There’s actually a linked intellectual movement called Liberaltarians and John Tomasi seems to see himself working in the classical liberal tradition as much as the libertarian one. But it is quite possible that (like many previous intellectual movements) it ends up travelling down unexpected routes and coming to interesting and useful conclusions. I’ll explain more in the next post.

      I quite like the bleeding heart name – better than the usual jargonised terms intellectuals usually come up with.

      • Tomsmith

        How is social justice defined in this context? If it means equality for all then I guess BHL will be a failure. If it means something more like increasingly good conditions for all then it might not

        • Adam Lent

          A very good question. There certainly seems to be an inclination to define social justice in John Rawls’s terms; meaning that society is organised in such a way that it benefits the least well-off and fortunate. But as I said there is a real ambiguity about whether this is a new justification for libertarianism or a challenge.

          • Tomsmith

            Capitalism and reasonably free markets benefit the least well off bty giving rise to continually increasing standards of living. Why even go so far as libertarianism?

            Is this all Rawls requires though? Although I haven’t read his work I was under the impression it had something to do with explicit equalisation of outcome?

          • Tomsmith

            In the first case above, since even pretty controlled capitalism results in benefits to the least well off, with regular vanilla libertarianism presumably being much more efficient in this regard, what is the need for BHL?

          • Tomsmith

            If BHL is concerned with equalisation of outcome then in what way is it libertarian?

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