Bleeding Heart Libertarians 2: Why we must start talking to them - RSA

Bleeding Heart Libertarians 2: Why we must start talking to them

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  • Philosophy
  • Social justice

Libertarians have a very poor reputation outside their own ideological enclave.  Generally associated with the wilder fringes of American politics, libertarianism has little purchase on mainstream thinking in the UK even if some of its spirit informs the Conservative Party’s approach and elements of UKIP’s.

A more tolerant attitude to the state exists over here, of course, but some portion of blame can be placed at the feet of libertarians themselves.  Shrill, often glib and, like most deeply ideological types, as obsessed with purity as with influence, it is unsurprising that many recoil. A mirror-image, in fact, of the hard left with which they do regular and pointless battle in the blogosphere.

Libertarianism also suffers through its association with the Tea Party. This movement projects what might be called a ‘selective libertarianism’ – claiming to be the sole guardians of liberty from government interference in the economic sphere but then apparently discovering a deep statism when it comes to immigration, gay rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and various cultural practices they find distasteful. Many libertarians are not as incoherent as this (witness those within UKIP who have paid the price for consistency over gay marriage) but given that the Tea Party is the highest profile libertarian movement in the world, it is to be expected that many conclude that the whole ideological strand is confused.

Now, however, a new strand of libertarianism called Bleeding Heart Libertarianism (BHL) has emerged which wants to reach out to the mainstream to open an apparently serious dialogue. In particular, they want to discuss social justice driven by the view (heretical in libertarian circles) that if ‘libertarian institutions’ (non-state, mutually beneficial arrangements) cannot genuinely help the worst off then they should be abandoned or reformed.  Should we return the favour?  Here is one reason why I think we should.

The object of libertarian derision, the state and its agencies, has been enduring a painful decline for many years.  The state is not about to disappear any time soon but its ability to effect change and, linked to this, the public’s faith in government has gone into reverse.  The reasons for this and its outcomes have been charted extensively elsewhere. Clearly globalisation, more mobile populations, the emergence of a less deferential culture and, more recently, the rise of the internet, have made the state’s attempts to assert its will far less straightforward.

Now the state, at least in the advanced economies, faces a further blow to its role in the form of a deep fiscal predicament.  The way this will challenge many of the core functions of government is only now beginning to dawn on those who have to deliver them.  See, for example, the ‘jaws of doom’ and the  'graph of doom' .  The long-run decline of the state is starting to look worryingly like existential crisis .

Under these circumstances, a dialogue with thoughtful individuals who have long doubted the state’s efficacy or moral right to govern, seems worthwhile.  In some ways, libertarians have been ahead of the curve on the state’s inner contradictions and the public's changing attitudes while mainstream politics merely throws up its hands in despair at the rising constraints on effective policy and the popular hostility to government.

There are, of course, many routes (as yet undiscovered) to addressing the problems emerging as the state withdraws but if conversation with those who have long planned and hoped for such a withdrawal can help us discover one or two or those routes then we should seize it.

This is particularly the case for BHL. Its interest in social justice is fundamental to the prospects for serious dialogue.  The decline of the state is a real threat to the worst-off and vulnerable who rely on its structures for all sorts of help from welfare payments to healthcare to social care.  Those libertarians who believe blithely that such potential suffering is a price worth paying for liberty or, alternatively, believe the market will automatically deliver for these social groups would be useless correspondents.

But BHL has the potential to be different.  It admits it is less sure of its ground on social justice and thus offers a chance to discuss this most pressing issue openly. Conversation could challenge some of their preconceptions but, more importantly, might also challenge ours and show us the beginnings of new ways of generating social justice that could be achieved with a much reduced state.  In truth, the stakes are too high to ignore the possibility of inspiration no matter what its origin.

In the next post in this series, I’ll suggest a further reason for dialogue related to the rise of an ‘economic planning mentality’ since the 2008 Crash.

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  • I dont think you actually understand the libertarians of the conservative persuasians view.

  • On point 4, I think this issue is another reason why the left/right spectrum doesn't always help to illuminate. It's really just an old metaphor about the French royal family that has become a popular heuristic that gives a little bit of traction in distinguishing between patterns of viewpoints. On this particular issue I imagine people on the right would say they can be every bit as collective in spirit as those on the left because there is nothing inherently selfish about being right-wing. The key question is whether the collectivism is coerced by the state or freely chosen through trust-based relationships between individuals.
    I am not familiar enough with the relevant literature, but I suspect BHL might be a good test case for the explanatory utility of the political which case arguing whether something is BHL or Left Libertarianism might not be the most productive way forward.

  • Thanks Chris. On each of your points:

    1. I think this is precisely what the Bleeding Heart Libs are trying to do. Much depends of course on your definition of social justice which could be deeply redistributive (Hayek would hate) or could be about ensuring that the worst off get as good a shot at political equality and economic opportunity as anyone else. The latter would not be something Hayek would necessarily oppose especially given his surprising support for a universal basic income: http://bleedingheartlibertaria...

    Corporate welfare is regularly opposed by right libertarians through their opposition to 'crony capitalism' as you know, so this is an interesting point of linkage.

    2. I know this is a bigger debate but I guess the difference between state planning and corporate planning is that when the former goes wrong the state coerces those who point it out. Corporates will ultimately go bust or lose value if they fail to listen to the 'truth'. The problem arises when the power of the state is brought to bear in defending poorly planned corporates. Again possible points of agreement.

    3. But Marxists are sceptical of the capitalist state - there always seemed to be quite a lot of enthusiasm for the workers' state (pace Marx himself maybe).

    4. BHL is really a revisionist strand of right libertarianism I think; definitely not of the left. But your point does raise the interesting question of what really is the difference between right and left libertarianism. I'm not nearly expert enough to know for sure but is the key difference what remains once the state has been shrunk/abolished? Right libertarians see a predominantly individualist, market society; left libertarians see a predominantly collective and collaborative society with maybe some market elements. That may well be wrong!

    5. Agreed on UKIP but they do like to describe themselves as a libertarian party. Time for trade descriptions to get involved!

  • Very interesting. Nick Pearce at ippr alerted my to BHL a few months ago. I have just posted http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.... on Moises Naim's thesis that all forms of hierarchical power are on the wane. Perhaps the libertarians are soul searching because the closer their hopes come to fruition the less attractive they seem.

  • You've opened a big issue here, which I welcome. A few observations:
    1. If you want a dialogue with right libertarians, you need an answer to Hayek's argument that there's no such thing as social justice, merely individuals giving other individuals stuff. One theme here uniting the left and right-libs would be opposition to corporate welfare (eg bank bail-outs, handouts to Tesco to take on workers they'd have hired anyway, military spending etc)
    2. Another link between left & right here concerns Hayek's scepticism about the possibility of centralizing knowledge. To right libertarians, this rules out central planning. To leftists (well me & Hilary Wainwright anyway!) it's also an argument against centrally planned companies.

    3. It's not just libertarians who have been sceptical of the state. What about Marxists, who've long argued that it's a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie?
    4. I'm not sure what the difference is between BHL and ordinary left libertarians; if you want a dialogue with the latter, great, but it's left talking to left.
    5. Don't exaggerate the number of libertarians in UKIP. UKIP is, to a large extent, an anti-immigration party. And if you support immigration controls then you are not a libertarian, pretty much by definition.

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