Podcast: Matt Zwolinski Discusses “Bleeding Heart Libertarians”

In this IHS Academic podcast, I interview Dr. Matt Zwolinski about his popular blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and the philosophy behind it. Dr. Zwolinski is associate professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego and co-director of USD’s Institute of Law and Philosophy. Matt covers topics ranging from how the blog has been received from both libertarians and progressives, and responds to some common objections regarding the philosophy of “bleeding heart libertarians”.


Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos Online podcast! I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today
I’m joined by Matt Zwolinski, who is here to talk about his popular blog, Bleeding Heart
Libertarians. Dr. Zwolinski is associate professor of philosophy at the University of San
Diego and co-director of USD’s Institute of Law and Philosophy. Welcome Dr. Zwolinski,
thanks for being on our podcast!

Matt Zwolinski: Thanks, it’s great to be here!

JH. Your new blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, is causing quite a stir. What must one
believe to qualify as a “bleeding heart libertarian”?

MZ. Well bleeding heart libertarians are, in the first instance, libertarians, so they believe all the
things libertarians typically believe. They believe in free markets, spontaneous order, the
importance of strong rights to private property and limited government. Of course libertarianism,
at least as I understand the term, refers to a range of political views and within that range you get
some fairly different positions. You have people who call themselves classical liberals like
Richard Epstein. You have people that are called minimal state libertarians like Robert Nozick or
Ayn Rand, and then you get anarcho-capitalists in people like Murray Rothbard. So you can get
people from all of that range in bleeding heart libertarians.
But it’s a range of views distinguished, first of all, by their commitment to the standard
libertarian beliefs, and then second of all that, they believe that these libertarian institutions are
good for the poor. Now there’s a weak version of bleeding heart libertarians where that’s as far
as you’d go. You’d say I’m a libertarian, I believe in the things libertarians believe in, and I think
those things are good for the poor. I call that a weak version because I think there’s a stronger
version—and this is the version that I endorse—which is, not only do these institutions happen to
be good for the poor, it’s not just a coincidence, the fact that they’re good for the poor and
vulnerable is actually an important part of the moral justification of libertarian institutions. It’s a
big part of the reason we have to endorse those.
So to see if you kind of qualify as a bleeding heart libertarian in that strong sense, try a thought
experiment. Suppose that all the critics of libertarianism were right about the empirical claims
that they make: that markets are rife with failures, they tend to cause the rich to get richer and the
poor to get poorer, that this leads to the exploitation of workers by capitalists. If all those claims
were really true, and libertarians don’t believe that they are, but suppose they were. Would you
then still be a hardcore libertarian? If the answer to that is no, then I think you might be a
bleeding heart libertarian.

JH. So have you had success so far changing minds on this or that issue, whether it’s
softening libertarians or hardening progressives? Or is the effort not so much to change
minds as it is to help people see that they may agree maybe on a lot more than they had

MZ. Yeah, it’s really hard to say whether we’ve had any success changing minds. All we really
have to go on is the comments people make on the streets or conferences and then the responses
we get at the blog itself in the comments thread and it’s hard to know how representative those
comments really are. The most striking response I’ve seen is not that hey, you’ve changed my
mind it’s more along the lines of hey this is kind of what I’d thought all along, I didn’t really
have a label to identify it, and I wasn’t so sure it was really a philosophically respectable
position, and now maybe I see that it is. I think there are a lot of people out there who think that,
yeah, on the one hand libertarians have a lot of important and useful things to say on the way
markets and political processes work, but that people on the political left have some important
maybe not-so-crazy things to say about helping the poor and things like social justice, and gosh
wouldn’t it be nice if those two things can be reconciled. And so the blog is showing them that
other people agree, and that maybe there’s a way to work that stuff out.

JH. What’s the most common critique you receive from progressives who remain
unsatisfied with bleeding heart libertarianism?

MZ. Yeah, well there is a bunch, varying both in content and in quality. So you know, you get a
lot of the normal things libertarians hear, that markets are rife with market failure, they lead to
monopolies, didn’t libertarianism cause The Great Depression, things like that to which anyone
who’s been around libertarians for any length of time has a ready response. I think the most
interesting—I don’t know if it’s the most common critique I’ve received—is that the approach
libertarians, I guess this isn’t specifically focused on bleeding heart libertarians but general to
libertarianism as a whole, libertarians approach complex social and economic problems in a way
that is too abstract, too theoretical, not sensitive enough to context or variations in local
conditions or historical contingencies. In other words, libertarians are applying a kind of prepackaged ideology onto a host of complex issues, and so they’re over-simplifying their responses
to things. When you ask libertarians what they should do about problem x, they sort of whip out
their first principles and deductive logic and they give you an answer without ever having to look
at the details of the situation.
I think there’s an element of fairness to that critique, and it comes from people who are not
socialists. They’re people who tend to occupy a more middle ground position, and so I think tend
to be more difficult to defeat in argument if that’s what your goal is. These are people who think
markets have some good things about them, that there are some morally praiseworthy facts about
free markets, and in fact we should see markets as a kind of tool, social tool to use in some
circumstances to achieve certain kinds of goals. But, they say, it’s not a tool that can be used for
every problem and to see whether the tool of free market price system is better suited to solve a
particular task, or some kind of government intervention might be better suited to accomplish
that particular task, we actually have to look at the details and get down in the weed.
So I think yeah, that’s a good argument, one libertarians should perhaps take more seriously than
they do. It’s not a new claim. If you look back at the history of debates in libertarianism, look for instance at the early days of the Austrian school of economics, that pretty much exact argument
was one the German Historical School was making against the Austrian School, the idea that the
Austrians were taking this deductively worked-out logic and applying it to a whole host of
complex problems without any attention to the historical contingencies and local details of the
situation. The Austrians developed a pretty reasonable and powerful response, I think, to that line
of argument. But it’s one, I think, more libertarians need to think through.

JH. Well speaking of libertarians, my guess is in addition to having some criticism from
progressives, you might be getting some criticism from libertarians who don’t regard
themselves as bleeding hearts. So what’s the most criticism you get from your own side?

MZ. Yeah, we kind of set ourselves up to make absolutely nobody happy with this blog, right?
The progressives don’t think we’re progressive enough, the libertarians don’t think we’re
libertarian enough. There are a few lonely voices in the wilderness who like what we’re doing.
We’re fighting a war on two fronts here.
So libertarians also have some critiques about the bleeding heart project and they do specifically
focus on the bleeding heart element of the bleeding heart libertarian approach. So their main
concern is with their attempt to reconcile social justice and free markets. They attack that in one
of two ways. Some libertarians think the idea of social justice is either conceptually incoherent or
it’s immoral in a way, insofar as the implementation of social justice, whatever that happens to
be, is inevitably going to require some kind of coercion through the form of coercive
redistribution of wealth, coercive taxation to fund public health care, education, things like that,
and so even if the concept makes sense, it’s a bad concept, it’s a concept we should reject that
would lead us to conflict with more important moral values, mainly the rejection of coercion.
That’s, I think, the most common libertarian response.
There’s a couple of ways of responding to that. The first is to say that, well look, you can believe
in social justice, you can believe in the importance of social justice as a moral concept, as a
moral constraint, without necessarily believing the state ought to directly intervene in order to
produce whatever particular outcomes are identified as just by that theory of social justice. So
social justice, as I see it, is a moral standard for evaluating institutions, and there are a variety of
such standards. There are as many theories of social justice as there are theorists of social justice.
But suppose that, just to take an arbitrary and oversimplified one, suppose your standard of
social justice was that in a just society, no one who is willing to work will go hungry at night, no
one who is willing to work will go unfed. Now it’s possible, and a libertarian would be attracted
to this kind of argument, it’s possible that a purely market society, one with zero government
redistribution, could satisfy that standard, if the combination of economic productivity and low
prices, combined with voluntary charity served to ensure that everyone who wants to work gets
fed. There’s nothing special, in other words, from the perspective of social justice, about a
government guarantee in the form of a written law. What matters ultimately is whether people in
need actually get fed, not whether there is a law on the book that says they must get fed. So you can believe in social justice and believe, as a matter of fact, the institutions of a market society
combined with civil society satisfy that constraint. So that’s one response.
The second response, and I think this is probably where I’ll meet more resistance from
libertarians, the second response is to say that I think that libertarians are wrong, or some
libertarians are wrong, to think that the prohibition on coercion, or you might call it the nonaggression axiom, has a kind of special and inviolable moral status that’s different from and
higher than any other moral claim. I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s true that redistributive
taxation is coercive, I probably disagree with some people on the left about that. I also think that
it’s wrong, all else being equal, to coerce people, but I think that morality is more complicated
than that. I think that morality asks us to do more than just refrain from coercing people.
Morality asks us to meet people’s needs when we can, to give people what they deserve when we
can, to establish institutions like courts of law or even just maybe a public highway system that
promote a peaceful and productive society, and sometimes I think these other requests that
morality makes of us are going to come into conflict with the request to refrain from coercing
others, while coercion is bad, and perhaps a very serious moral bad, I think libertarians, and here
I’m thinking libertarians of the Rothbardian or Randian sort, I don’t think libertarians have done
enough to show that it’s always and everywhere worse than other possible wrongs so that
whenever you get in a conflict between morality of coercion and some other kind of moral
concern, the prohibition on coercion always trumps. I think that coercion is a very serious thing,
but it’s not clearly always and everywhere the most serious thing and that the more pluralistic
libertarianism would make room for the ideas of social justice and other moral concepts and
admit as a possibility these other moral concerns sometimes, and in some instances, might trump
the prohibition on coercion.

JH. So I’m not going to pretend to have a philosophical outlook, so I’m stealing this from
someone I heard mentioning it around the office and they said that your blog seems to take
a prioritarian approach with regard to social justice, which was explained to me as a view
which gives extra weight to well-being of the worst off in society. Is that correct?

MZ. Yeah, I think that’s not too far off. In philosophy, prioritarianism is a view that sort of
emerged from the literature on distributive justice and equality, and it emerged from the idea that
a strict egalitarianism is, for a variety of philosophical reasons, untenable; its not a view that too
many people want to endorse, at least in terms of the egalitarianism of outcomes. So the
prioritarian view is that, when we’re deciding how to divvy things up in society or design
institutions that will do the divvying up of things in society, we should give extra weight, extra
concern to the needs of the least well-off people in society. So if we can produce a certain
amount of good for the least well off person, or for the kind of person who is in the middle class,
we should give the stuff to the least well-off person.
So I think it’s not unfair to characterize the way we’ve discussed social justice on the blog as
prioritarianism. I should preface that by saying I don’t have a very well-worked-out theory of social justice just yet. I mean, I’ve got some thoughts about the matter, and I think look, there are
just a lot of different views that could be described as views of social justice and a lot of those
views are fairly reasonable and have some important insights. So for instance, I think that a
person who is a practicing catholic and who adhere to various principles of catholic social
teaching, I think that person has a view that could accurately be described as a view about social
justice. Or the same would be true of a Rawlsian who is committed to the difference principle as
a principle for governing the basic structures of society. So those are different views of social
justice with slightly different implications, and there are many others as well.
I think that most reasonable views of social justice are going to have a kind of prioritarian
element. But that word ‘element’ is important for me. As I kind of indicated before, I’m a moral
pluralist, so I think any time, not just in this instance, but any time you take a single moral idea
and try and make an all-encompassing theory out of it, you’re going to run into problems. That
things are better in the world, all else being equal, when people are happier; that’s clearly right.
That happiness is the only thing that matters, from the perspective of morality, and that we
should devote our entire lives to producing the greatest aggregate amount of it, that seems to me
insane. Utilitarianism is a kind of hedgehog-ism and I think the same is true of prioritarianism. I
think it’s clearly true that, all else being equal, others need to have a greater pull on us the
needier those others are. Where you run into problems with the view, and the problems that your
colleague was perhaps indicating, is when you assume that’s the sole criterion by which moral
decisions are to be made.
So for instance, most of us think, I think, that responsibility matters too, right? Not just how
badly off you are. So if the reason you’re needy, the reason you’re in the not-well-off class, is
that you’ve been lazy or you’ve been a spend thrift, then your claim for assistance on the rest of
us is, as a result, greatly diminished. Being badly off as a result of sheer bad luck is different
from being badly off as a result of making bad choices and morality out to take account of that.
So that’s a problem. The fact that responsibility matters is a problem maybe for a strict kind of
prioritarian theory, but I don’t think it’s a problem for a pluralist moral theory that incorporates
certain prioritarian elements, and that’s the kind of view that I think is ultimately going to be

JH. OK. Would you say there’s any view that makes no sense for libertarians to try and
find a common ground with progressives on?

MZ. Yeah, absolutely. There are lots of things we shouldn’t take on board from progressives. My
point I think, or the point I try and make on the blog, is that libertarians have more common
philosophical ground with progressives than either libertarians or progressives tend to realize.
Progressives are wrong to think libertarians are indifferent to the plight of the poor, and
libertarians are wrong to think social justice is a threat to liberty. But of course, progressives believe things at both the level of public policy and philosophical
principle that I think libertarians should absolutely not accept. At the level of philosophical
principle, for instance, you have some people who believe in a strict version of equality, this sort
of material equality that I think libertarians ought to reject. Libertarians tend to dismiss the idea
that there’s any value to people having the same amount of stuff, sort of regardless of how their
different holdings arose. I think they’re probably right to do that. Most libertarian critiques of
equality are ones I’m pretty sympathetic with.
At the level of public policy, for instance, a lot of progressives, mostly philosophically but also if
you look at sort of non-academic progressives, are very committed to protecting and promoting
the interests of organized labor in their own country, even at the expense I think of much worse
off people who would be benefited by perhaps some sacrifices to the privileges of organized
labor. So for instance, I think in the United States, we should have almost completely open
borders, allow anyone to migrate here, to work here who wants to do so. That is a policy that is
strongly opposed by organized labor and many of their progressive and intellectual backers
support their support of closed borders. I think that’s a big mistake. I think what you’re
supporting when you support closed borders, because it will lower US wages, is you’re
protecting the interest of a class of workers who are already among the wealthiest people on the
planet if you stack up their incomes and compare it with the incomes of everybody else living in
the world. These people are fantastically wealthy, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when
you sort of look around at your neighbors and see how much more stuff they have than you. So
you’re protecting the interest of some of the most powerful and wealthy people on the planet at
the expense of some of the most vulnerable and desperate people on the planet who simply want
to come here and engage in voluntary exchanges with others, work for others who want them to
work for them, in a way that makes them dramatically better off and I think makes all of us who
live on this country be on aggregate better off as well.
That, I think, is a failure of progressives to take their own progressivism seriously enough, and
not taking their own theories of social justice seriously enough. If social justice matters, then
social justice matters, like any kind of justice, beyond borders. Human rights don’t stop at the
US-Mexican border, and if social justice is a matter of human rights, then neither does it.

JH. Well thanks so much for being on our podcast, Matt!

MZ. Absolutely, it was a pleasure to talk to you!

JH. Again you can read more of his work and others at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. For
more interviews with leading scholars, visit Kosmosonline.org, connecting the network of
liberty-advancing academics, and this is Jeanne Hoffman, signing off.