Matt Zwolinksi returns to the show to discuss what’s next now that the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog has ended after a nine year run. He starts by describing how the blog came to be and what he learned about libertarianism. Zwolinski hopes that people think of libertarianism and social justice as compatible, and that we can work to forge political alliances, not just with people on the right who want to shrink government, but also with people on the left who want to reduce inequality.
What is a “Bleeding Heart Libertarian”? How does the Bleeding Heart Libertarian movement fit into the broader libertarian tradition?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Matt Zwolinski. He’s professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder and director of USD Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy. He’s also the founder of the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians, which ended its nine‐year run on June 1st. Welcome back to the show, Matt.
00:29 Matt Zwolinski: Thanks, guys. It’s really great to be back here with you.
00:31 Aaron Ross Powell: What is a bleeding‐heart libertarian?
00:34 Matt Zwolinski: Well, when we started the blog, we adopted as our unofficial motto the phrase, free markets and social justice. And so, a bleeding‐heart libertarian in our eyes was somebody who believed that those two things could, contrary to most people’s belief, actually go together. And we adopted that phrase partly because it was provocative. Social justice, in particular, is something that raises a lot of hackles among libertarians and people on the right, more generally. And we can talk about that as we go along because I think there’s some justification to those hackles being raised. But, put aside the term social justice for the moment. At the simplest and most basic level, a bleeding libertarian is simply somebody who thinks that you can be a libertarian and still care a lot about many of the things that people on the left purport to care about: The poor, fighting racism, fitting sexism, the rights of the immigrants, those kinds of things. Those aren’t incompatible with being somebody who supports free markets and limited government and that really is the core of bleeding‐heart libertarianism; those two things would go together.
01:52 Trevor Burrus: Would this contrast to say, objectivist Ayn Randians who may not even use the word libertarian. So that would maybe be the biggest foil, but in my experience too, most libertarians probably do care about those things. And so, is it just a perception of libertarians that’s the problem?
02:11 Matt Zwolinski: Partly, yeah. So, I think part of the pushback that we got from libertarians was based on the belief that we were distinguishing ourselves from all other libertarians in proclaiming that we cared about these things, as though we were saying, “We care about the poor, unlike all these other cold‐hearted libertarians,” and I don’t think that’s right. I think part of what we were trying to do was show that the popular perception of libertarians, as people who didn’t care about these things, was mistaken. Now sure, you can find stuff, in particularly, in Ayn Rand that sounds cold‐hearted. You can find stuff in other libertarians that sounds cold‐hearted as well, but part of what we wanted to do was to press people to dig a little deeper and find the bleeding heart elements in existing libertarian ideas. But also, part of what we wanted to do is push libertarians to dig a little deeper into their own views and become a bit more bleeding heart. So, there are bleeding heart elements in a lot of existing libertarians, but we wanted to dig those out, examine them, and push people to think a bit more carefully about them, and perhaps, for libertarians to adopt those views in a more consistent and rigorous and wholehearted kind of way.
03:27 Aaron Ross Powell: How does the Bleeding‐heart Libertarians movement or idea fit into the broader historical perspective of libertarianism and the libertarian tradition? Because if we go back and we look at early libertarians and proto‐libertarians, you see a huge amount of talking in the language of concern for the poor, like the American individualist anarchists were all about helping the poor against the power of the state. A lot of the classical liberals wrote in this. So, is it the case that in the past, libertarians and adjacent groups spoke more in this language and then drifted away from it? Or is this really kind of a new mode of thinking?
04:15 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, I know. I’m really glad you asked that question because this is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about over the entire nine‐year run of Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It’s something that I’ve learned a lot about from the blogs that Libertarianism.org runs, especially George Smith’s blogs on the history of libertarian ideas. And I think you’re exactly right, that bleeding‐heart libertarianism isn’t an anomaly, it’s not something that we invented out of whole cloth. It is… In a lot of ways, it is a rediscovery of elements that have been present in libertarianism from the very beginning, and I think elements that were in some ways more obviously present, and maybe more consistently present at the very beginning.
05:06 Matt Zwolinski: So, I’m writing a book on the history of libertarianism, and I have been for probably about nine years now on the history of libertarian ideas with John Tomasi, and we see libertarianism as something that emerged out of classical liberalism in the middle of the 19th century, so right around 1850, you start seeing a kind of radicalized, more absolutist version of classical liberalism emerging, particularly in Britain and France and people like Herbert Spencer, people like Frederic Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari and a little bit later in the United States with some of the individualist anarchists that you mentioned. And you’re right, this idea of concern with the poor is everywhere in their writings.
06:00 Matt Zwolinski: They see the state as problematic in large part, because of the way in which it oppresses the weak, they see markets and limiting government as desirable in large part, again, because of the ways in which it would liberate the weak. The weakness and poverty and marginalization are not natural categories, they are in large ways artificial categories that are the product of state action. That, I think gets lost, that theme in libertarian thought gets lost to a certain extent, or at least obscured maybe is a better word, in the 20th century. You don’t see it as much in what John and I call the post‐war libertarian group, people like Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick. It’s more in Rothbard than it is in Rand and Nozick but even there, it’s a little bit obscured. I think there’s an interesting historical story to tell about how and why it became obscured, but part of what we’re doing with the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog as I see it is rediscovering this earlier dominant theme in libertarian thought from the 19th century and bringing it into today’s world.
07:17 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting we bring this up now because we’re recording this in the midst of the pandemic and we’re also recording this in the midst of widespread unrest across the United States over racial policing practices, and on Twitter, some of the things that we’ve seen have been complaints about libertarians. Where have libertarians been on racial, social justice issues and where has Cato in particular been on these issues, and it makes you think about this post‐war alliance you’re talking about of libertarians and conservatives being anti‐communism and being considered, and libertarians being considered on the right. Do you have an opinion or strong view on where libertarian should fit on the political spectrum? You’re also free to resist the entire political spectrum as an answer to that question.
08:03 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, I think it’s a mistake to view libertarians as on the right politically, I think it’s best to see libertarians as a kind of liberal, though in a sense, we’re all liberals today, people that we call conservatives in the United States are for the most part, a kind of liberal, Edmund Burke I think was a liberal, right? So modern conservatism derives from proto‐liberal roots. There’s an element in contemporary, I hesitate to call it conservatism, but there’s an element in the contemporary Republican Party, element on the right today that definitely rejects some core liberal ideas, and I think that’s problematic, and I think that’s something that libertarians should be extremely vocal in resisting and that genuine conservative should be genuinely vocal in resisting but yeah, as far as the political spectrum goes, I think to some extent, you wanna resist the whole thing, but if you’re gonna have to place libertarian somewhere on it, I think we go on the left rather than on the right, but…
09:18 Matt Zwolinski: I don’t wanna talk for too long, but I do wanna come back to this issue of the protests that are going on because I think there’s a real moment here, and it’s one that libertarians… It’s one that libertarians should be grabbing enthusiastically, some libertarians are grabbing it enthusiastically, there is, as you mentioned, a perception that libertarians aren’t grabbing it, that they’re may be even distancing themselves from it, I think that perception is wrong, I think it’s understandable, but I also think it’s something that libertarians have to take seriously, right? The fact that we’re perceived as distancing ourselves from this movement shows that we’ve got a lot of work to do, at least in the rhetoric, that we use to talk about these things.
10:04 Aaron Ross Powell: As we’re looking though as libertarians of whatever kind we call ourselves at the current protests, one of the I think the concerns that people who are for limited government and free markets have is that it’s not that they might diverge from the protesters in say, their desire to end racism in America, or their desire to rein in abusive policing or to just help the poor and under privileged more broadly, but that so we can agree on that goal. But the mechanisms for doing it, there’d be strong divergence on. So particularly in a lot of the “either anti‐racism or helping the poor” angle, you listen to the rhetoric of a lot of the activists, and it’s very anti‐markets, it’s “We need robust government responses and robust redistribution and robust anti‐discrimination laws that libertarians often have real concerns about in their mechanisms of enforcement” and so on. And so how does libertarianism and bleeding‐heart libertarianism fit into that? When we’re allied with a lot of these people in a lot of areas, we’re allied in goals in a lot of others, but in some of them, there are not just differences of opinion, but where we think the things that they want would be downright dangerous or profoundly anti‐liberty.
11:37 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, that’s certainly correct. There are a lot of things that some of the most vocal members of the Black Lives Matter movement want that libertarians would and should soundly reject. There are a lot of anti‐market ideas, there are a lot of statist ideas that libertarians would rightly reject, but the core issue here, the issue of resisting and reducing state violence against blacks is an easy one for libertarians. This isn’t even on the margins, this isn’t a hard case at all, this is something that libertarians… This is right in our real house, this is the state, literally, it’s not as brute on somebody’s neck, but it’s its knee on somebody’s neck, and if there’s anything that libertarians ought to be against, it’s that.
12:36 Matt Zwolinski: So whenever you have a popular social movement that’s aimed against… That’s aimed at making some big social change, take the Abolitionist Movement of the 19th century, right? There are gonna be a lot of people who supported ending slavery and also supported a bunch of other insane crazy dangerous ideas. And there’s always a kind of tactical question about there about how you go about distancing yourself from such people or to what extent you make common cause, but I think when the core issue is as profoundly clear as either the abolition of slavery or the reduction of police violence against civilians, then libertarians should not hesitate to as much as they can make that issue theirs, to get in there and to show that this is something they support, that this is something they’re not… No, it’s not new to them, that they’ve been supporting for some time, they’re enthusiastic about it. This is our moment, right? And we ought to seize it un‐ashamedly.
13:48 Trevor Burrus: Now you’re in academia, so I imagine you encounter more outright socialists than the average person in life, and it’s something that Aaron and I have talked about because in our history of being at the University of Colorado at Boulder in law school at University of Denver, both of us tended to make better friends with socialist professors or outright communist professors, than we did with many more mainstream thinkers, which is something that doesn’t strike me as that odd, because if you… On some basic level, if you think about libertarianism, it’s kind of a theory of the unjust use of power and how that powerful entity skews and affects people’s lives. Is that something that you think that sort of BHL also fits into and sort of having more productive conversations with maybe some of our socialist friends in terms of the kind of misuses of power that characterize the state?
14:46 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, so it depends. I think BHL is, it was deliberately designed as a big tent, so we have a lot of people blogging at BHL and there are a lot of people out there who call themselves bleeding‐heart libertarians who disagree with each other about a number of fundamentally important questions of ethics and political philosophy. So for instance, I view myself as a kind of pluralist classical liberal, I’m not a utilitarian, I’m not a natural rights theorist, I think there are great insights to be derived from both of those traditions, but I wouldn’t wholeheartedly embrace either of them, and I also… I’m not as radical and absolutist as a lot of people I know who describe themselves as libertarians, I’m not as absolutist as Nozick or Rand, Rothbard on the issue of non‐aggression, for instance as you guys both know, but we do have bloggers who are.
15:52 Matt Zwolinski: So Roderick Long for instance, is a left‐wing Aristotelian anarchist who has blogged for Bleeding Heart Libertarians since the very beginning, and I think in some ways circling back to your question here, Roderick has an easier time finding common cause with radical left‐wing professors than I do, ’cause at least he’s a radical. I’ve got radical elements, I guess, but I’m a fairly moderate classical liberal, I don’t think that the status quo is deeply and fundamentally to its root, unjust and the whole thing ought to be burned down and we start… Or start over again. I think a lot of people on the left do think that, and I think Roderick to a certain extent thinks that too. So both, what he has in common with people on the left is this view that there’s a kind of deep structural fundamental injustice in the current system and that radical almost revolutionary change is necessary in order to correct it. I don’t have that, but I do find common cause with a lot of my left‐leaning colleagues on number of particular issues having to do with poverty relief, structural racism and things like that, it’s just it’s a question, I guess of radicalism and the degree and the deep‐rootedness of the injustice.
17:25 Aaron Ross Powell: This brings up a question that I had in my notes to ask at the end, but it seems to follow on better here, so I’ll ask it now. As you said, Bleeding Heart Libertarians is a big tent, and you have a lot of authors on the blog with a lot of very strong opinions about all sorts of things, like with this disagreement between between Roderick and you on both radicalism and moderation. What were some of the other debates that existed or kinda key points of disagreement among the people who called themselves BHLers during the nine‐year run?
18:09 Matt Zwolinski: That’s another great question and there certainly were a lot of them. Some of them were more central than others, so some of these debates were somewhat peripheral in the sense that Jason Brennan, for instance, and I disagree about a lot of things, but none of them are, I think… Well, no, I wouldn’t say none, but most of them aren’t super central to the core of what it is to be a bleeding‐heart libertarian, for instance. So yeah, this can be used on…
18:37 Aaron Ross Powell: That surprises me, ’cause Jason doesn’t really have many controversial opinions.
18:41 Matt Zwolinski: [chuckle] Yeah, I know. He’s generally a fairly moderated, restrained folk, but his view on adjuncts for instance, and what we should think of movements to increase the pay of adjunct lecturers or improve their working conditions, I have some disagreements with him about that. But that I think is sort of an applied derivative issue, not really fundamental to what it is to be a bleeding‐heart libertarian.
19:09 Matt Zwolinski: His views on democracy are somewhat more fundamental to the question. And so, I think both myself and Jacob Levy have some concerns about elements in libertarian thought that are anti‐democratic. And Jacob and I take the position that democracy is… And a commitment to democracy is fairly central to classical liberalism, both historically speaking and in contemporary terms, so that’s a more fundamental debate. But probably the biggest one has to do with the degree to which libertarians can or should support some form of welfare state and what form that welfare state should take.
20:02 Matt Zwolinski: So I’ve been fairly vocal in my support for some kind of universal basic income, and a lot of my fellow bloggers disagree with me about that. Not all of them, but a lot of them. And a lot of them think that we should have no welfare state at all. So not only is the basic income a bad idea, but any kind of state‐based redistribution is a bad idea. So that’s certainly been a big debate that we’ve touched on a number of times over the course of the blog.
20:34 Trevor Burrus: If we get into some of the bigger questions that come from the left, I think, especially in the last 20 years wherein you’re hearing it now with the protest talking about hierarchies and power hierarchies and different ways that different groups are oppressed by various systems, it leads libertarians into the discussion of what has been called “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism. And the question of whether or not libertarianism is just a philosophy about what government can and can’t do, or whether or not we have anything to say about what a business can do to its employees or some other non‐state power structure. And Bleeding Heart Libertarians waged that a couple of times. But how do you think libertarians should thing about those issues?
21:20 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, that’s right. So that’s something I wrote about several times as well and I pretty consistently came down on the side of “thick” libertarianism, meaning not that you can’t be a libertarianism unless you… Sorry, you can’t be a libertarian unless you oppose racism and sexism and all these other things. You can, I mean, you can support free markets and liberate government and be quite reactionary on any number of social issues.
21:53 Matt Zwolinski: What I meant in my defenses of “thick” libertarianism was that, in my view, the best arguments for libertarianism, the best arguments for the conclusion that we ought to have free markets and limited government, are also going to support an opposition to racism and sexism and a lot of other things that might not be definitive of libertarianism as such, but that nevertheless draw support from common foundations. So for instance, one of the debates… This wasn’t a intra‐BHL debate, but we got into a big debate, I forget what year this was, maybe 2014 or so with Crooked Timber. The bloggers over at Crooked Timber, who were kinda a left wing bunch of academics, over the issue of coercion in the workplace. And they wrote a post together, which I felt was really good and which made actually a pretty big impact on me, arguing that the kind of power that bosses wield over their employees in a capitalist market is a kind of thing that ought properly to be described as coercive at least in some cases.
23:18 Matt Zwolinski: And that people who were genuinely concerned with individual freedom ought to take that kind of coercion pretty seriously, and I think that’s right. I think a lot of the libertarian responses to that are right too. I think that market competition does a great deal, and is probably one of the most effective ways of combating against that kind of coercive power. But still, it happens. And when it does happens, it’s something that libertarians ought to be concerned about and take seriously, and maybe even be willing to adopt certain policy views that they would otherwise reject in response to that kind of coercion.
24:04 Matt Zwolinski: So that kind of argument is one of the things that leads me to take the idea of a welfare state or some kind of basic income seriously. I think one of the best libertarian arguments for a welfare state is that it will help to protect the people against that kind of coercion by providing them with an exit option, by providing them with the ability to say no to an employer who makes demands of them that are unreasonable, by being able to quit and not starve to death.
24:33 Aaron Ross Powell: I’ll note for our listeners that we have an episode of the show with Professor Elizabeth Anderson on precisely that question of the power of private coercion, especially in the workplace. And we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. It’s a really interesting discussion. I wanna ask now about the term that provokes strong reactions from everyone who uses it, whether pro or con and that’s social justice. The bleeding‐heart libertarianism has tied itself to that term in a lot of ways, but at the same time, social justice is something that is sneered at by certainly conservatives and by a lot of libertarians, we hear the epithet is “social justice warrior” and a lot of the stuff that does seem to happen under the mantle of social justice looks pretty anti‐libertarian. So what does social justice mean? If the term means anything at all at this point, what does it mean for… In general and for bleeding‐heart libertarianism, and why do you think that there’s value in thinking about things from within a social justice frame.
25:53 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, so as I said, when we adopted the tagline “free markets and social justice,” we were being a bit provocative there, we knew that that was a phrase that raised people’s hackles, we sort of wanted to do that just to get people to look and take an interest in what we were doing. But it wasn’t insincere, we thought that there was something to the idea, we didn’t have a well‐worked out theory of what social justice was. We still don’t… At least we don’t have a group theory, different members of the blog might have their own well‐worked out theories of what social justice is, but there is probably nothing that we all agree on there except a kind of core basic idea, which is primarily economic. So we started this blog as a group of academic philosophers, and so for us, when we used the phrase social justice, we were largely thinking of that in light of people like John Rawls for whom social justice was about something like distributive justice. It’s about distributing the products of a society in a fair and equitable way, not so much about racism or sexism, Rawls doesn’t really talk about those issues in any kind of detail, it’s not about identity politics, again, that’s largely absent from Rawls. And so those issues, those non‐economic issues are sort of on the periphery of our thinking.
27:30 Matt Zwolinski: We’re mainly thinking about things in economic terms, and the core idea that we had, that I think we all agreed on, was that if it turned out that people on the left were right, that libertarian institutions, if they were consistently adopted, would impoverish the poor or doom them to a life of oppression or exploitation, if all those things turned out to be really true, then those would be really good reasons to doubt that libertarian institutions were morally justified. So it’s kind of a hypothetical claim that the ability of free markets and liberty government to serve the interests of the poor is a necessary condition on its moral justification. Straightforward, natural rights arguments that libertarian institutions respect your individual right to self‐ownership and private property or utilitarian arguments that libertarian institutions maximize utility, those by themselves, we all thought were not, again, by themselves sufficient to justify libertarian institutions. This challenge from the left is one that had to be faced and met.
28:55 Trevor Burrus: We’ve been discussing a couple of times, we discussed welfare and universal basic income and some other things that as you and all the bloggers dealt with for the course of Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there are many libertarians and some who might be listening to this podcast who are rolling their eyes and saying, “You’re using the word libertarian and you shouldn’t be using the word libertarian if you are talking about the possibility of a welfare state.” Now, I am not one of those absolutist people either, but it does raise the question of what the irreducible minimum requirements of being a libertarian is, or are. Of course, we could choose the word classical liberal or something, but this has come up in terms of how libertarians can disagree about the welfare state or how it is being provided, or we can maybe even disagree about immigration, but you can say, “Well, what is the minimum requirement for being a libertarian to believe that?” So for example on immigration, we’ve had this conversation at Cato a few times, does everyone have to be open borders to be a libertarian? I don’t necessarily think so, but I think the minimum requirement is a presumption of movement that there’s a presumed right to move across borders that could be defeated. When we’re talking about welfare, have you had thoughts on what’s the sort of minimum to be a libertarian if you support some type of welfare?
30:20 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, so both the question of what defines someone as a libertarian or what the boundaries are around that concept that rules some people out, and the question of to what extent support for a state‐based welfare system is compatible with libertarianism. Those are both issues too, which I have given a lot of thought. I think the first one is, it’s a difficult question to answer, because language is socially constructed, we use words however we want to use them, there’s no natural category of libertarian and different people use this term in different kinds of ways. So for instance, just to give you an example from my own experience. I describe myself as a libertarian in some context, in another context I don’t. In the context of US political culture as a whole, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to call myself a libertarian because relative to the status quo, I favor fairly radical movements in the direction of liberty, in a what sort of uncontroversially be regarded by libertarians as the direction of liberty.
31:29 Matt Zwolinski: If on the other hand, I’m at a libertarian conference with people like you and Aaron and my fellow bloggers, there I would probably describe myself as a classical liberal to distance myself somewhat from people like Rand and Nozick and Rothbard on the one hand, who I think are… I would rather call strict libertarians and to put myself more in the position of people like Friedrich Hayek and David Hume and Adam Smith…
31:54 Trevor Burrus: And everyone else is gonna call you a socialist. That reminds me of the Mises‐Friedman‐Hayek moment at Mont Pèlerin where I think Mises called them a bunch of socialist, right? Yeah.
32:03 Matt Zwolinski: That’s right. So the context matters. Would it make sense to call yourself or call someone else depends on who or what you’re trying to distinguish them from? And that’s gonna vary depending on who you’re talking to and what purpose you’re trying to achieve. So, I’m doubtful that there’s any one answer to the question of what defines a libertarian. I think there are a number of concepts and this is something that John and I talk about in our book.
32:30 Matt Zwolinski: There are a number of concepts that are more or less central to the libertarian intellectual tradition. Concepts such as support for free market, support for notions of private property, support for limited government and the kind of skepticism of authority. And the more of those boxes you check, the more libertarian you are, the more squarely you fall within the libertarian tradition, but it’s not a circle with a hard and fast boundaries where it’s obvious that for every person, which side of the line they fall on.
33:08 Matt Zwolinski: Now, as for the welfare state and the extent to which support for some kind of state‐based transfers either it’s compatible with libertarians or rules you out of it. I think if we just go on the historical evidence here, when you look at what people who are pretty uncontroversially described as libertarian said, you actually find more support for some kind of welfare state than you might think from the outside. So Friedrich Hayek, of course, a lot of people know this now, but Friedrich Hayek supported something that looks awful lot like a universal basic income, though he thought that people had an obligation work. So it wasn’t quite unconditional. Milton Friedman, of course, supported the negative income tax. There’s a bit in Nozick where he at least flirts with… And that’s kind of all that Nozick ever does with ideas, is flirt with them, he at least flirts with the idea that the welfare state could be justified as a kind of compensation for historical injustice. And you find that same idea, interestingly, in the guy who probably has the best claim of anybody in the history of libertarian ideas to being the least bleeding‐heart person ever to write, which is Herbert Spencer.
34:29 Matt Zwolinski: So Herbert Spencer, who’s known by most people today as a cold‐hearted social Darwinist, thought that the English Poor Laws could be justifiable as a compensation for the seizure of lands that were made by the English state during the enclosures period. So you find at least some contingent and maybe historically, contextually specific support for welfare states among a lot of different libertarians. And I think there’s good reason for that.
35:03 Matt Zwolinski: You can support a welfare state, I think, while still holding to your good libertarian instincts about skepticism of the state, all the kind of public choice concerns about how these things are gonna grow out of control and be captured by special interest groups. Those are all perfectly, perfectly valid concerns. Concerns about individual responsibility, the desire to provide people with sufficient incentives to work. Those are all really good points, but they don’t, I think, rule out the very possibility of a welfare state, and there are good libertarian reasons such as those I gestured at earlier about preventing private coercion, by protecting people from the kind of coercion that economic dependency can subject them to in the marketplace for thinking that we can justify a welfare state on balance of freedom.
35:57 Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems to me that if you’re thinking, at least, along the right lines, kinda going back to this vague notion of how do you define this broad category. But if you’re thinking about past state injustice or what justifies moving away from the presumption that you don’t take people’s stuff and give it to other people and realize that that needs some sort of at least justification if you’re going to do it, but I’ve played with the idea of… I find the public schools to be such a horrid mess in a human rights violation that I… That’s the kind of thing where they say, “Well, maybe we owe them money for forcing these kids to be in public schools for so long.” But at least you’re having the right thoughts about what would justify writing checks to people.
36:39 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, one of the phrases I used in one of the blog post I wrote at BHL was “libertarianism isn’t starting now,” which is the idea that we have a society in which all kinds of plunder and oppression and slavery and theft take place. And then, we decide that we’re going to start respecting private property and holdings. So all the stuff you just stole from that group over there and all their destitution, is now kind of locked in by this rigid adherence to libertarian norms.
37:17 Matt Zwolinski: And that seems wrong, right? That seems deeply unjust. So if we’re gonna take these libertarian ideas seriously, then we gotta face up to the question of what to do about all the infractions of those… Infractions, it’s kind of too minimizing a word to use, but the ramshackle running over of those norms that has taken place in the past, and where that’s left different groups within society, both those on the bottom and those on the top, what are we gonna do about all those historical injustices?
37:52 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned the public choice concerns in passing, and I wanna dig a bit more into that kind of worry about the classical liberal end of libertarianism and the BHL and particularly in the specific policies that a lot of BHL people advocate, and that’s the concern that this stuff sounds good, and it would be nice if we could have the minimal or the night‐watchman state that also gives people a basic income, but we know that states love power, they just aggregate all the power they can, acquire all of it that they can at any opportunity they have. We’re watching right now, we’re recording this in the middle of protests around the country about police misconduct, and their protests that have also done a tremendous job of demonstrating just how misconduct‐prone the police are as we all watch countless videos of the state beating people senseless because they had the gall to stand up and say, “Please don’t beat me senseless.”
39:02 Aaron Ross Powell: And so there’s a real worry, and this is a worry that anarchists have about minarchists and minarchists have against classical liberals and all the way on up, that there’s almost like a naivete that if you let any level of the state in, whether it’s a welfare state or whatever else, we’re gonna end up with something far worse than what you intended. This is similar to “call this The Road to Serfdom” sort of argument or a slippery slope, and so, yes, there are concerns that we might have about too minimal of a state leading to some problems, but those some problems are likely to be far less worse than the problems we get if we kind of let anything in the door.
39:46 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, I get that. And I’ve heard those concerns a lot, and I have a great deal of sympathy with them, I think they’re on point, and there’s certainly something to be on guard against. I don’t know where they leave us at the end of the day, for instance, I don’t think that they necessarily push strongly in favor of anarchist or “as small estate as you can possibly get” kind of views, because after all, what these public choice arguments are presenting to us is the observation, the entirely correct observation that people try to get and expand and maintain their power. And that phenomenon doesn’t go away when you abolish the state, you’re still gonna have that drive in human nature, and it’s not obvious to me that power will be harder to get, maintain or expand and abuse in an anarchist society, than it would be in, say, just to pick the most biased and favorable counter example, a sort of transparent, democratically governed classical liberal state.
41:15 Matt Zwolinski: So there’s an observation here about human nature, which I think is entirely on point, but the institutional implications of that observation to me are unclear. I think we ought to definitely take precautions and do what we can to subject power to as much scrutiny as we can, but I don’t think it sort of leads obviously in favor of anarchist or minarchist views as opposed to, say, classical liberal views.
41:52 Trevor Burrus: Going forward, you kind of said that BHL, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, was kind of both a substantive disagreements and substantive new ways of looking at things that was different from what many libertarians had said, or especially in the post‐war period, and also a rhetorical strategy for being better at communicating to some who may have no desire to listen to libertarians because they met one in their freshman college philosophy class and he wouldn’t shut up about Ayn Rand and now they never want to hear what we have to say again. Not that I’ve ever met those people. [chuckle]
42:28 Trevor Burrus: But going forward from a rhetorical standpoint and just libertarianism in the place of politics in America and around the world now, but I guess more specifically America, and this is not about political scientists in the way of handicapping the future of American politics, which is obviously a fool’s errand at this point, but how can libertarian sort of be better? And if we are better, how can we better put ourselves in sort of the changing tectonic shifts that are occurring in American politics right now?
43:00 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, so I think a lot of people reject what I sometimes call the strong bleeding‐heart libertarian view, which is that some condition of social justice is a necessary requirement for the justification of libertarian institutions, right? So in other words, unless you can show that libertarian institutions don’t starve the poor, provide them with some… Or they do provide them some adequate level of well‐being, then those libertarians institutions are justified. Some people reject that view. Fine, okay, I disagree with you. But even if you reject that, you can still adopt what I call a weak or a contingent bleeding‐heart libertarian view, which is the view that I think a lot of libertarians have, including that whole post were a bunch of Rand Nozick Rothbard, which is the view that as it turns out libertarian institutions really do work to the benefit of the poor, that’s not a condition on their justification. Those institutions on their view are justified because they are the requirements of a consistent respect for individual freedom and individual rights.
44:14 Matt Zwolinski: But it so happens, lucky us, that those institutions also benefit the poor and women and ethnic minorities. So you can have that view, and you could still call yourself a bleeding‐heart libertarian, I think. You care about the poor and you’re happy that libertarian institutions work to their benefit, in which case I’d encourage you to talk about that, right? I think that’s something that is a selling point, would be a selling point of libertarian institutions to a lot of people. So, play that up, talk about how libertarians have promoted police reform over the years. Talk about how libertarians were in the forefront of the movement against slavery and imperialism in the 19th century, talk about the way in which libertarians supported women’s rights, those are all attractive elements of libertarianism to a lot of people. And so even if you think those aren’t the reasons why libertarianism is true, they’re still good things, and we should celebrate them.
45:22 Aaron Ross Powell: Why now, after nine years, bring Bleeding Heart Libertarians, which I’ll tell our readers… And we’ll put… There’s a post up on there that pulls together some of the best posts over the years, and we’ll put a link to that in our show notes, but for readers who have not read Bleeding Heart Libertarians, it’s hard to understate how significant it’s been in the intra‐libertarian and political philosophy of libertarianism debates over the near decade that it’s run, it’s a ton of really important thinkers contributed really important ideas to it. So even if you disagree with everything Matt has said to us over the last 45 minutes, it’s well worth your time to read and wrestle with these ideas, but it’s also then kind of sad to see it ending after nine years, so why bring it to a close now?
46:19 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, we could have kept it going. I think especially given the kind of things that are happening in our country, I think there’s a lot for bleeding‐heart libertarians to say. But a couple of things, first, we had all sort of… Or at least a lot of us already moved on in a lot of ways, we started this blog when we were fairly junior academics, and then we got older, we had kids, we moved on to other projects, and so the volume of posts on the blog had gone down pretty significantly over the last few years, people were busy doing other things, and so in some ways, we already moved on from the blog, we just hadn’t called what it was yet. So there was that, and then there was the fact that I think we sort of made our point.
47:19 Matt Zwolinski: We wanted to do something with this blog, we wanted to show that free markets and a concern for social justice were compatible, we wanted to highlight the work of philosophers who were already working in that vein, the people who sort of raised my generation of philosophers, people like David Schmidtz and Gerald Gauss and John Tomasi. These were libertarian philosophers whose work we felt wasn’t as well‐known as it should be, and we wanted to highlight that work, and its centrality to the evolution of classical liberal thought. And we wanted to not just sort of make non‐libertarians more aware of what libertarians were doing, but we also wanted to make libertarians more aware of what non‐libertarians were doing. So we wanted the learning to be bidirectional, we thought that libertarians had stuff to learn from non‐libertarians and that non‐libertarians had a lot to learn from libertarians.
48:19 Matt Zwolinski: And I feel like we did all that and we kind of ran out of stuff to say, and so it was better to put a period at the end of that sentence rather than just sort of let it fade out over time. So, we’ll keep writing on themes related to bleeding‐heart libertarianism. There’s gonna be a lot of that in the book that I’m writing with John Tomasi on the history of libertarian thought, and the other bloggers are doing similar kinds of work. Bas van der Vossenstuff on property rights and international justice has a lot of BHL elements to it, Jacob Levy’s ongoing work, Jason Brennan’s voluminous ongoing work. We’ll just be doing it in other venues.
49:04 Trevor Burrus: There’s, of course, a lot of ideas to be worked out as you put in the final post, some of them we’ve already been discussing, where do you see the idea of Bleeding Heart Libertarians go from here? I guess maybe at minimum, it becomes a taxonomy, part of the taxonomy of “What kind of libertarian are you?” But also the influence going forward, where do you see that going?
49:32 Matt Zwolinski: Yeah, well, what I’ve learned from studying the history of philosophy is that the best way to be remembered, and talked about years after you die is be incredibly vague and leave a lot of questions unanswered. [chuckle] If you’re completely clear, and you just say everything you wanna say and then end it, nobody wants to talk about that.
49:51 Trevor Burrus: It’s like Plato too, yeah.
49:53 Matt Zwolinski: Plato, Nietzsche, Kuhn, Tagore, you name it, right? Just the more obscurant as you can be, the more relevant you’ll be. There are a lot of… We try to make progress as best we could on a lot of these questions, but they’re hard questions, the nature of social justice, what is that? What does that imply in terms of all kinds of general policy positions from welfare states to immigration policy, to drug laws? We touched on all of those topics, but I don’t know that we settled any of them, so there’s a slew of research programs here that people who follow in our footsteps can and hopefully will follow. And I hope that we’ve reached not just academics, again, that was their primary audience to begin with, we never thought we’d get much of an audience beyond academia, and we did want to influence them to think about libertarianism differently.
50:51 Matt Zwolinski: But I think we did in the end reach beyond the academic audience, and maybe made some impression on the way that non‐academics who identify themselves as libertarian think about themselves and see themselves as falling within the political landscape. So I hope that going forward, people think of libertarianism and social justice as not incompatible, as they’re being more in common there than perhaps they’d appreciate in the past, and that they can work to forge political alliances, not just with people on the right who wanna shrink government, and cut taxes, and cut government spending, which is all well and good now, I’m completely in favor of it, but also with people on the left who want to reduce inequality, and provide opportunity for people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum, who wanna fight racism and sexism, that there’s a lot of opportunities for working with those people as well, while still holding true to one’s libertarian belief. You don’t have to compromise, that’s not a foreign view.
52:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.