Bleeding heart libertarianism


The libertarian blogosphere is abuzz with talk about the new Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Basically, the BHLers are hoping to fuse libertarian policies with a Rawlsian moral position that emphasises the welfare of the poor. They present it as a challenge to the current orthodoxy in libertarianism, which (in the US, at least) is typically based on the idea of natural rights: libertarianism is morally good because it minimizes coercion, so it’s the best system.

I’ve never been happy with that paradigm. It’s rare to meet a natural rights libertarian who doesn’t also think that a libertarian system would maximise wealth, which is a bit of a coincidence. This is a dogmatic position that might be popular among true believers, but is quite peripheral to mainstream debate. I think the BHLers are missing the point about what most libertarians are driven by now – a practical scepticism about government’s efficacy, not moral concerns.

Their implication is that, if we accept Rawls’ philosophy that sees natural born traits as a lottery, some kind of redistribution is necessary. The thinking is, essentially, “Well, if you want to promote utility, wouldn’t taking a little from Bill Gates and giving it to Oliver Twist be a good step?”. And, in the vacuum of a thought experiment, it might be.

But the fact that we’re not in a thought experiment is the big question that we’ve got to tackle. No policy actually does take place in a vacuum, special interest groups vie with each other to influence policy, and people in and out of government are deeply flawed creatures. Politicians and civil servants are humans too, and they are influenced by incentives as the rest of us. This makes it extremely hard to assume a “good” government, as most interventionists do when they propose another tinkering with society or the economy, because the unforeseen consequences that go with any coercive policy can be big, and there’s no reason to think that a given policy will be carried out as its designer intends. Peter Boettke sometimes shows his students this graph:


It’s designed to show that, if we did have perfectly good and knowledgable actors, things would be great under any system. But we don’t have perfect actors in the market or in government, so this is a pretty silly place to make policies for. We have to think about which type of organization is most robust. Spontaneous orders like the market are more reactive to change and can process new information more quickly than are planned orders. This is what Hayek, Buchanan, Polanyi and many others all saw, and its a key reason – maybe the key reason – to prefer the market to the state.

I probably am a bleeding heart libertarian, in the sense that I’d like a system that raises the overall amount of utility in society and I don't believe in natural rights. But that doesn’t imply any particular system in and of itself. The big question isn’t why, but how, to run society, and a convincing defence of a libertarian system should be based on outcomes rather than first principles. It’s not a good system because it’s moral, it’s moral because it’s a good system.