Bleeding-Heart Libertarians

I will admit, I know next to nothing about Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism.  I’ve heard the term with increasing frequency over the past several years, and a few of my closest friends (Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz) as well as a hero (Neil Peart) consider themselves aligned with this movement.

Growing up in a rather devout Catholic family, I always associated “bleeding-heart” with a false kind of charity, the kind of “charity” the government imposes upon us with taxes, redistribution, and bureaucratic heartlessness.  Real charity, as I was taught it, meant the direct and actual working with the poor, the imprisoned, and the orphaned.  The “bleeding-hearts” were those who felt guilty, but not guilty enough to do the real work.  They established institutions that allowed them to forget about their actual duties to the poor, etc.  In other words, they merely satisfied their guilt by passing on the problem to the inhumane and impersonal.

This past weekend, I had the grand privilege of spending a lot of time with two Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, Sarah Skwire (mentioned above) and Matt Zwolinski.  Sarah has been a very close friend for nearly a decade now.  But, I’d never met Matt before.  On Friday evening, he graciously gave me his time, explaining what he meant by his BHL.  It seems the term first came from philosopher, Roderick Long.

The banner for the BHL website.

The banner for the BHL website.

It’s probably best if I just quote Matt directly from his blog,

At least in the world of academic philosophy, libertarians are not known for their sympathy to the ideas of social or distributive justice.  Hayek famously wrote that social justice is a “mirage” and an atavistic relic of impulses that arose in an earlier, primitive form of human society.  Robert Nozick, who most academic philosophers still take to personify libertarianism, similarly held that the term “distributive justice” was based on a kind of mistake – an assumption that what people have or don’t have is the result of a decision by a central distributor.  Of course, both Hayek and Nozick – like most libertarians – believe that capitalist markets do, in fact, serve the interests of the poor and downtrodden.  But this fact does not seem to play an essential role in the moral justification of those markets.  It is, it seems, merely a happy coincidence.

I do not wish to dismiss the Hayekian or Nozickian challenges to social or distributive justice out of hand.  No doubt they contain and important insight, at least insofar as they serve to remind us of the important role that spontaneous order plays in economic and social systems.  But this insight by itself is insufficient grounds for casting aside notions of social or distributive justice.  Property rights, markets, and many of the resulting distributions of wealth and opportunities may have arisen spontaneously.  But this does not prevent us from asking whether they are just, and whether we should or should not work to change them in some ways – even if the complexity of the market order and ourbounded cognitive abilities means that our capacity for successful interventions is limited.

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.  Labels are often a greater source of confusion than insight in academic discourse, and no doubt most of the contributors to this blog will wish to qualify the sense in which they fit this description.  Some, for instance, will qualify their libertarianism with a label – “left-libertarian,” or perhaps “liberaltarian.”  Others might prefer to think of themselves as “classical liberals” or even “market anarchists.”  But libertarianism, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.   What we have in common on this blog is an appreciati0n 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.

Beyond this, there is almost certainly a tremendous range of disagreement among our participants, not only regarding labels but regarding deep substantive issues as well.  I hope the conversation on this blog, both among our authors and among our commentators, will help to explore these disagreements, as well as our points of commonality.

In addition to a shared attraction to some form of social justice though, I’ve chosen my fellow participants simply because I like their work.  I think the directions in which they are taking political philosophy are extremely promising and interesting, and I want to hear more of what they have to say, both about academic philosophical issues and about how their philosophical beliefs bear on current events.  I think you’ll find what they have to say to be worthwhile too.

So, welcome to our blog.  I look forward to the conversation.

From what I see, BHL is to libertarianism what the Front Porch Republic is to conservatism.  Each movement longs for a fusion with the Left on certain key ideas.

So, a lot to digest.  I hope you’re as intrigued as I am.  And, thank you, Matt and Sarah.  So nice to see new ideas and new vigor in the world.