Bleeding heart libertarians

6 minute read

For those of you who haven’t heard, the Howard County local blogosphere has a new entrant, as Corey Andrews has started a new HoCoLibertarian blog, to get a foot in the door for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives in Howard County. (Note that Andrews is also planning to run for the Board of Education in 2012; for more information see his campaign blog.) To help welcome his new blog I’m going to devote this blog post to libertarians, more specifically to Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a great new group blog I’ve been following avidly (and occasionally commenting on).

I happen to be a life-long Democrat. Why would I be interested in libertarianism? My casual interest goes back a ways to my space activist days (when I encountered a lot of libertarians) and continued through my time working for Silicon Valley IT companies (yet more libertarians) and working in the free and open source software space (ditto). However I’ve been paying more attention to libertarian ideas lately for three reasons:

  • First, I’m with Thomas P.M. Barnett and others in thinking that the key to future U.S. and world security is growing the middle class in developing countries and integrating more and more countries into the global economy. That means that spurring economic growth around the world is critical, and I think that’s best done through free markets that can drive technological and business innovation and free trade that can spread the benefits of such innovation around the world.

  • Second, I believe that recent years have demonstrated the power and relevance of large-scale Internet-enabled voluntary collective action, as seen in Wikipedia, the Linux and Mozilla projects, and so on. I think such activities are valuable and should be encouraged, and to do so I think we need to think outside the government vs. the market box our political dialogue is often stuck in.

  • Finally, I believe that at least in developed countries we’ve reached the limit of how big government can be. Excessive public debts, entitlement costs, and high defense spending (at least in the U.S.) are going to make it harder for government to fulfill the key functions I believe it has: providing public goods (beyond just defense), working with market actors and civil society to create the rulesets needed for the smooth functioning of an advanced society, and (where it makes sense) helping make it possible for all people to fulfill their potential within such a society. That means every dollar of government discretionary spending has to be spent well, and all government efforts need to complement and not attempt to replace the free market and civil society.

This doesn’t mean that I’m now a libertarian, or planning to become one anytime soon. Most notably, I don’t share core beliefs held by many doctrinaire libertarians, such that taxation is theft and that a democratically-elected government is morally equivalent to an organized criminal enterprise. However I don’t think it’s necessary to buy into the stereotypical libertarian belief set to find many libertarian ideas worth considering as a basis for public policy.

It’s also true that not all libertarians fit the stereotype. This has always been true, but it’s become more apparent in recent years, as demonstrated in the writings of Brink Lindsey (of liberaltarian fame), Will Wilkinson, and others. And that brings us back to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog (or BHL, as its fans fondly refer to it). As Matt Zwolinski wrote in the first post,

I've created this blog as a forum for academic philosophers who are attracted both to libertarianism and to ideals of social or distributive justice. 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.

That’s a sentiment I can get behind, hence my interest in BHL. The BHL bloggers have been very active since the blog began less than three weeks ago, and it’s hard to pick favorites. However here are some personal highlights from my reading thus far:

  • Neoclassical Liberalism: How I’m Not a Libertarian and Neoclassical Liberalism vs High Liberalism, by Jason Brennan. Historically the term liberal didn’t mean what most people mean by it today, but rather meant someone who is committed to the ideal of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets (to quote Wikipedia). In this spirit Brennan and others are promoting neoclassical liberalism: Neoclassical liberals combine a classical liberal commitment to economic liberty with a modern or high liberal commitment to social justice. … They think the economic liberties share the same high status as the other liberties. However, neoclassical liberals also believe that this need not come at the expense of social justice. (High liberals is Brennan’s term for liberals in the common sense used today.) This was an interesting post for me because neoclassical liberalism is probably closest to my own position as it’s evolved over the years.

  • Exploitation and Social Justice by Matt Zwolinski. A good discussion of the moral issues around sweatshops, minimum wage laws, and other cases where many libertarians argue that the state would better help the poor by taking a laissez faire attitude: … mutually beneficial exploitation is often something legal regimes should tolerate, and this point counts in favor of the classical liberal vision of the state and against the recommendations often made by those on the left. But whether a transaction counts as harmful or mutually beneficial depends on what we take as the baseline … One point that those on the left have often made, and which classical liberals ought to take much more seriously, is that capitalist systems as they actually exist … have often rigged the baseline to the detriment of labor and to the advantage of capital. It will not do to argue that transactions in a free market are always mutually beneficial and therefore non-exploitative.

  • Overlapping Consensus Libertarianism or Why Convergence Arguments Are Cool by Daniel Shapiro. A discussion of how best to gain support for libertarian policies: … rather than looking for one or the best moral or political theory, [ground] libertarianism by showing it is compatible with a variety of reasonable approaches. … Put all your effort into showing that one kind of political theory is the correct view, and supports certain principles or institutions, then if it turns out your theory is mistaken, you have no support for your principles or the institutions you support. But if your principles or institutions are supported by a wide variety of political theories or perspectives then you avoid this problem. I like this approach, because I’ve always been annoyed by what I call I’ll prove it to you libertarians who use logical deduction from self-selected axioms to try to convince you that libertarianism is the only choice open to the truly rational person.

  • What You Wish They Would Read by Matt Zwolinski. Lots of great suggestions for libertarian writings that (modern) liberals should read, and vice versa.

  • Fairnessland and Economic Growth by Jason Brennan. A thought experiment to provoke thinking about questions around income inequality and the effects of economic growth. Suppose it turned out, empirically, that improving the income level of the poor at any given time by equalizing incomes eventually leads to the poor in that society having less than they otherwise would have had under a less equal but faster growing scheme. If so, which is preferable, all other things equal? A. Equalize things now so that the poor now do much better. B. Allow for growth so that the poor in the future do much better.

I could go on quoting from BHL for a while, but I’ll stop here. The bottom line is that whether you call yourself a liberal or a libertarian, if you’re not content simply to parrot the stereotypical political arguments that go with those labels then you absolutely need to be reading this blog.