No more Bleeding Hearts

Just a short note to mark the passing of one of the blogs that we link to over on the right-hand margin: Bleeding Heart Libertarians, which announced last week that it was ceasing activity, although its archive will remain available.

The idea behind BHL, as Matt Zwolinski explains in the final post, was “that you could be a libertarian who favored free markets and limited governments, and still care about the kind of things people on the left refer to as ‘social justice’.” On the one hand, its writers “sought to open mainstream Rawlsian political philosophy and theory to the influence of market-friendly classical liberalism”; on the other, “to steer classical liberal scholarship toward taking egalitarian liberal ideas much more seriously than it often had.”

I’m no Rawlsian myself, but I think those are highly praiseworthy objectives. And while I’ve spent quite some time in criticising “libertarians” – that is, people who profess libertarian ideals while embracing Trumpist politics – it’s important to acknowledge that the genuine libertarian article is still around.

We’ve seen this in the last couple of weeks with the protests in America and elsewhere against racism and police brutality. Some on the left have pointedly drawn attention to the absence of “libertarians” from the debate, but actual libertarians have been prominent in advancing proposals to demilitarise police forces and create real accountability.

Particular mention must be made of the Cato Institute, the closest thing the United States has to an official home of libertarianism. Its work on criminal justice reform over the years has played a big role in bringing the issue to the forefront of debate, even among sections of the Republican Party.

But that in turn reminds us of the influence of the Koch brothers, the financial powers behind Cato (it was initially called the Charles Koch Foundation), and the fact that Cato-style libertarians cannot entirely escape responsibility for the madness of the “libertarians”. As I explained last year in my obituary for David Koch:

The activists and politi­cians who were most receptive to Koch’s obsession with climate denial were not libertarians. They were conservatives.

So Koch money flowed steadily to those who were hostile to most of the libertarian parts of Koch’s agenda. White supremacists, religious fundamentalists, opponents of immigration and gay rights, imperialist hawks. As long as they served the interests of the fossil fuel industry, Koch backed them against more moderate Republicans and against the Democrats.

Those who cared most about liberty, including the Kochs and their allies, also helped frame the political debate in a way that turned out to be deeply illiberal.

BHL and similar movements (including the Niskanen Center, named for a former chairman of Cato, with which several BHL writers are involved) were an attempt to avoid this problem and to dissociate libertarians from conservatism more than Cato had been able to. That effort has never been more necessary.

As Ilya Somin puts it:

The world needs the BHL blog today at least as much as it did back in 2011. The brand of liberalism that combines free markets with cosmopolitanism, rejection of ethnic nationalism, and concern for the poor and disadvantaged has never been more necessary than in this difficult time, when liberty is besieged on both the right and left. Whatever may be the situation in the specialized arena of academic political philosophy, the forces of nationalism and socialism are gaining group in the broader intellectual and political world.

But most of the BHL authors are still active in other places, so do check out their work. Jacob Levy and Steve Horwitz are my favorites; if you read just one piece, make it this essay from last year by Levy, in which he says important things about US politics but also gives a wonderful analysis of the relationship between democracy and liberty.


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