Bleeding Heart Libertarianism


Sam Bowman
by Sam Bowman

Suppose you wanted the state to do everything in its power to improve the welfare and opportunities of the poor, but were extremely sceptical about its ability to do so effectively. This mixture of traditionally ‘left-wing’ ends with traditionally ‘right-wing’ means to achieving them is a growing cocktail among many classical liberals and libertarians, variously described as ‘liberaltarians’, ‘Rawlsekians’ (followers of both John Rawls and FA Hayek) and, most popularly, as ‘Bleeding Heart Libertarians’.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians combine concern for the poor with scepticism of the state. It is a new term for an old idea, one that has been at the core of classical liberal thought since Adam Smith.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians, or BHLs for short, combine concern for the poor with scepticism of the state. The question they ask is this: knowing what we do about markets and the problems with state action – that state failure is just as (indeed, sometimes more) real and dangerous as market failure, that knowledge is limited so well-meant state actions often have very harmful unintended consequences, and that the state can become captured by special interest groups and act in ways that are not in the best interests of society as a whole – how can we design our institutions so that they best improve the welfare of the poor?

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is a new term for an old idea, one that has been at the core of classical liberal thought since Adam Smith. Indeed, the most common perception of what defines libertarians – a belief that the protection of private property rights is all that matters – only really describes followers of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand (the latter of whom explicitly rejected the label ‘libertarian’). Many of the most well known libertarian thinkers — FA Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan and Milton Friedman — believed in property rights protections as tools to improve people’s welfare, not as ends in themselves. In particular, Hayek and Friedman were both willing to concede numerous areas of policy where property rights violations were justified.

What would a ‘political economy’ of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism look like if BHLs focused their efforts on a few policies that would deliver the best results for the poor? Pursuing reform in areas like immigration policy and welfare for the rich, and focusing on the state’s regulatory activities in general, is far more important than opposing the sort of redistribution of wealth carried out in most modern social democratic states. The upshot of a new focus on these ‘BHL’ topics would be that traditional alliances between libertarians and conservatives would become defunct, as BHLs would have as much common ground with the political left as with the political right.

The BHLs’ preoccupation with the welfare of the poor suggests that traditional free market areas of interest like tax and redistribution become less important or even lose their importance altogether. Virtually nobody would dispute that very high redistributive taxes can be harmful to the poor by discouraging capital accumulation and thus long-term growth which, compounded over time, can lead to much less extra wealth creation at all levels of society than would otherwise have taken place. However, this does not imply that the optimal rate of redistribution is zero. Just as too much redistribution has costs, too little wealth redistribution might as well.

But there is no shortage of people who can tell us either of these things. There are several ‘low-hanging fruit’ policies that would do the most good for the poor without requiring a major change in governance in general and which are underemphasised by libertarians and the political left alike.

Although these policies should be achievable on their own – that is, without dismantling the entire apparatus of the state (however appealing that may be) – they should also not be heavily determined by what currently seems politically achievable. Taking the ‘extreme’ position in a debate can help move the window of debate in the direction we want, giving cover to allow others to take more ‘moderate’ positions closer to us. Political change requires ideas first.

I suggest that three areas of policy where liberalisation would have a profoundly positive impact for the poor are:

  1. Immigration
  2. Drugs legalisation
  3. Modern mercantilism (aka corporate welfare)

Some degree of libertarian reforms in each of these areas would mean a massive improvement in people’s lives. The founder of the BHL blog1, Matt Zwolinski, has also suggested these areas, as well as militarism (which may be less relevant in the British context).

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  1. Matt Zwolinski, 'What’s Important vs. What’s Interesting' (15 March, 2001) <> [Accessed 9th August, 2013]

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