Jumping into the debate about “bleeding-heart libertarianism” (Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, Bryan Caplan and again, David Friedman, David Henderson, and others), which seeks to integrate libertarianism with social justice. “Social justice” is one of those vaguely-specified, usually suspect phrases, defined by one defender of BHL as the position that “the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.”
Thus stated, BHL accepts the basic Rawlsian line about the morality of politics, and its advocates seek either (a) to wrest the “social justice” label away from the lefties who use it most by showing that ends of social justice are best achieved by free-market liberalism, as Edmund Phelps tries to do, or (b) to find common ground with lefties on moral issues.
Five quick points against BHL:
1. As a political-philosophical method: BHL says we should start politics by dividing people into groups and granting one group special prior ethical status. In this case, BHL divides people into poor and non-poor and holds the poor to have a special moral position in politics-making. That is not the way to ground politics, for two reasons: (a) Politics should start with individuals, not individuals-as-members-of-a-sub-group; and (b) politics should initially treat all individuals as having equal moral status — in my view, as self-responsible, free agents — not as having preferred status by belonging to a sub-group.
2. As a moral justification of liberty: BHL says your liberty and mine are justified only if and to the extent that it serves or benefits the interests of others, especially poor others. This means that its moral principle is serving or benefiting others. This is not the way to do the ethics of politics: Liberty as a basic principle means that each individual’s life is his or her own, whether or not the individual’s choices serve or benefit others. Individuals’ political freedom is justified because they need it in order to think and act independently to produce the values their lives need. My liberty to be a philosopher or a poet or an explorer is not morally contingent upon my doing so’s demonstrably serving the interests of others.
It’s fine to argue the general point that free-market liberalism leads to win-win results for everyone involved, and it’s a worthy effort to show how free markets are beneficial to various sub-groups — women, immigrants, the poor, and so on — but all of that is a consequent sub-topic to the basic moral point that individuals have a right to live their own lives freely.
3. As a conception of life’s core values: By focusing on the poor, BHL seems to make politics essentially or primarily about economics. If political institutions are to be designed by reference to their relative economic impact on the poor and non-poor, then economic wealth is the critical factor. But that is much too narrow a conception of liberty’s scope and the proper purpose of politics. Family, art, sports, religion, and so on, as well as economic pursuits, are parts of life, and the principles of politics should cover them all generally. A narrow conception of BHL would seem to imply that one is free to engage in art, religion, or whatever only if that can be shown to be to serve the interests of the poor.
Or perhaps the BHLs intend for poor to be taken more metaphorically to refer to anyone in a weaker position in any sphere of human life. The final phrase in the above definition adds the “least advantaged.” But then BHL implies that the political rules governing family, religion, and so on, should be crafted to serve the interests of the least advantaged participants. For example, in basketball, short people are less likely to be successful. Does the BHL principle imply that the rules of basketball should be devised and justified by reference to their ability to improve the basketball outcomes of the short? Or religion: Who would the least-advantaged members of religious groups be, and what would it mean to craft political rules about religion to serve their interests? Not a perfect analogy, but: Politicians should not care about the poor any more than they do about men who can’t get a woman to start a family with them — or any more than referees care about short basketball players.
4. As a marketing strategy: This is only speculation, but I know a number of libertarians who complain that their position comes across as too rational and coldly analytic. So to gain broader appeal, they argue, libertarians need to go out of their way to show that they have feelings and care. So perhaps the BHL strategy is to lead with their emotions by emphasizing their empathy.
Well, certainly reason and passion should be integrated, and a morally normal person feels for those who are in poverty through no fault of their own. This takes us into the fascinating territory of the moral emotions, and for BHL our question should be: Why should exhibiting those particular feelings be primary in making the case for a free society? Other passions are part of the morally-healthy package: Admiration for those who have achieved a lot. Anger at those who violate rights. Respect for those who exhibit independence and integrity. And of course empathy for those who are struggling with poverty. But empathy for the poor is not more morally special than respect for integrity or anger at bullies and tyrants, and it is a mistake to single it out for special foundational political status. Instead, political theorists concerned with the moral foundations of liberal society should be concerned with general principles of moral character that enable individuals to live freely.
(Side note: I think a case can be made that admiration for achievement is a more important moral emotion than empathy for the poor is, but that is another post.)
5. As a rhetorical strategy to get the lefties who dominate academic life to talk to us: Again a speculation, but perhaps BHL is partly an internal-to-academics strategy to make nice with the social justice crowd in order to get a seat at the table. Maybe there is some merit to this strategy, and I am all for seeking common ground when possible. But our problem with “social justice” academics is not that they just didn’t realize that we care about the poor too. The modern history of the social-justice movement from Rousseau to Marx to the 20th century is not a story of people with an unworkable theory but whose hearts are in the right place. Of course, social-justice academics come in a variety of degrees, and it may be that some of the moderate and open-minded ones will listen to our case if they are first convinced that we genuinely care about the poor. Fine. But that is at most a tactic within the overall strategy of making the case for the free society, which requires hard-nosed economics, plenty of empirical history, and vigorous and passionately-argued ethics of individualism.
[Update: Further commentaries on BHL: Jason Kuznicki, Jacob Levy, Andrew Cohen, Will Wilkinson, Jason Brennan, John McCaskey.]