The Moral Dilemma of Bleeding Heart Libertarians

This video is a nearly ten-minute interview with Matt Zwolinski, associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, and co-director of the university’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. Dr. Zwolinski also founded BleedingHeartLibertarians.com.

The interesting premise to Dr. Zwolinski’s discussion is that the sect of libertarianism he claims to represent holds a core commitment to social justice. The purpose of this video and of Bleeding Heart Libertarians is to reach out to like-minded liberals, but they seem to alienate fellow libertarians.

Building Bridges to the Left

In describing bleeding heart libertarianism, Zwolinski says:

One of the things that is distinctive about bleeding heart libertarianism, is that it takes a commitment to social justice to be a core element to in the justification of libertarianism. That’s why we believe in libertarianism, free markets, and private property. So if you believe in social justice, what you believe then is that if political and economic institutions do not allow the poor and vulnerable members of society to live decent lives, than that counts against, counts strongly against the justice of the those institutions. But simply being committed to social justice does mean that you are committed to the view that government must directly try to promote the well-being of the poor and vulnerable members of society. One of the great insights of libertarians, and this is something that we bleeding heart libertarians don’t disagree with at all, is that the welfare of the poor and vulnerable are often better promoted by laissez-faire. If it turned out that we were absolutely wrong about all of this, we would give up libertarianism. We don’t think that is likely to happen.

Personally, I prefer the term consequential libertarian to describe what Zwolinski calls a bleeding heart libertarian, because such a person is concerned almost exclusively with outcomes. Essentially, this argument says that one should support free markets and limited government because it works out best in the end. They argue that such a society would result in the most just, most fair and most prosperous society that could possibly be achieved by humanity.

When libertarians try to convince people of libertarianism, he says that “they do it by talking about the way in which that free markets make life better for poor, and the way in which they expand opportunities for all people and not just the privileged few.”

Zwolinski used the term social justice, and the appeal to a utopian society as a means to bridge the intellectual gap with the political left. A very worthy goal for sure.

Burning Bridges with Libertarians

Interestingly, Zwolinski directly moves to discredit libertarians who might disagree with his use of the term social justice, calling them “aberrations” of the libertarian movement.

“There are some libertarians who are strongly opposed to the idea of social justice and think that any attempt to reconcile with  that particular concept, which is traditionally associated with the political left, is misguided, conceptually incoherent, strategically bankrupt.”

He writes off these critics, and argues that the appeal to social justice is necessary because, he believes, there is no other moral grounds for libertarianism.

“There is simply no good reason that the axiomatic principles of self-ownership are as self-evident as Rothbard thought, or that we can simply derive out property rights from those axiomatic principles as neatly and cleanly as he thought.”

While acknowledging that Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard would disagree with his arguments, Zwolinski appeals to a larger body of libertarian intellectuals including John Locke, Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman to support his conclusions.

Moral Dilemma

Dr. Zwolinski and his fellow bleeding heart libertarians should be warned that their position is a precarious one. To believe that libertarianism, free markets and limited government are moral superior only because of their ends, completely ignores the very valid moral superiority of their means.

As a system, free markets and limited government treats individuals with more dignity, provides them with more responsibility and more opportunity, and deputized them to be the moral agents in their community. The moral superiority of freedom balanced with the increased responsibility of individuals is a core element of the justification of libertarianism.

To ignore this argument means that one must be willing to abandon his free market convictions if ever enough data is found to prove that a controlled market is more just in its results. Zwolinski admits this saying, “if it turned out that we were absolutely wrong about all of this, we would give up libertarianism.” But he dismisses the seriously of this condition, saying with a laugh, “we don’t think that is likely to happen.”

But data can be a dangerous thing. One’s convictions should run deeper than the numbers, because statistics can be interpreted to say almost anything. Not to mention that economic conditions tend to be cyclical. If one is willing to change their convictions along with changing statistics, is it accurate then to say that person has convictions?

If one is to believe in the moral superiority of libertarianism, he should take into consideration the totality of the moral system. Zwolinski was certainly correct when he said “morality is messy.” Which is exactly why one’s morality ought to be as complete as possible.

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