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Can A Libertarian Be An Advocate For Social Justice?


The political landscape in America is very polarized nowadays. Many people identify themselves as "Conservative" or "Liberal," and are willing to defend their beliefs vigorously. The political debates tend to focus more on the areas of disagreement, rather than the issues people agree on. Now, a new blog has popped up that attempts to combine the political beliefs of Libertarians, who support free markets and property rights, with the ideals of "bleeding heart" Liberals. We speak to the creator of "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" about the motivation behind his blog, and what he hopes people will take away from it.

The political landscape in America is very polarized nowadays. Many people identify themselves as "Conservative" or "Liberal," and are willing to defend their beliefs vigorously. The political debates tend to focus more on the areas of disagreement, rather than the issues people agree on. Now, a new blog has popped up that attempts to combine the political beliefs of Libertarians, who support free markets and property rights, with the ideals of "bleeding heart" Liberals. We speak to the creator of "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" about the motivation behind his blog, and what he hopes people will take away from it.


Matt Zwolinski, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and creator of the "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" blog

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Even though they sound sort of similar libertarians and liberals usually don't have much in common. Some would characterize this point as a head versus heart approach to political thinking, the Liberals being the bleeding hearts and the libertarians being that frigid free-market ideologues. But those generalizations don't often move discussions forward as we've seen in Americans increasingly polarized politics. A professor at University of San Diego has started a blog to see if there is a place in libertarian philosophy for a commitment to social justice. You know, bleeding heart liberal stuff. I'd like to welcome my guest. Matt Zwolinski is the associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and the creator of the blog bleeding heart libertarians. Matt, welcome to These Days.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: predicts graphic memory and it's great to be here

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I would like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you characterize yourself as a liberal, what don't you get about the libertarian point of view? If you are a libertarian, could you ever have a bleeding heart? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, it is 1-888-895-5727. That is 188-8895 KPBS. So, Matt, what was the motivation that you had behind creating this blog?

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Well I've always had an interest in and attraction to libertarian ideas. At some level I find the idea that each person has a right to live his or her life as he or she wishes as long as they respect the equal rights of others to do the same to be a deeply attractive and powerful idea and I found that free-market as an empirical matter seem to work. They seem to do a good job at producing tremendous amounts of wealth and the wealth allows people to live peaceful and productive and free lives. At the same time have also had a deep attraction to ideas of social justice. I think part of that comes from my Catholic background, the doctrines of capital Catholic social teaching have also suggested a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable and philosophically think the dominant trend of I'd say the last 40 years or so of political philosophy starting with John Rawls theory of justice has been a kind of liberal egalitarian stressing the obligations to society in to the poor and vulnerable and I find those ideas and the arguments behind them deeply powerful so I struggle to try to reconcile those two things to see if they can be reconciled and that's what I'm trying to do with the blog is two things, one is to work out the ideas and see what the intellectual issues aren't involved in that kind of reconciliation and to just publicize the fact that there are libertarians like this out there. We are all, we are not all like Ayn Rand who stresses that the virtue of selfishness and the big business being persecuted minority is a strict libertarianism but there's another strain out there as well even if it's not as well known.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take the mainstream strain of libertarianism and how they are take on efforts to redistribute wealth for the sake of social justice, what is, what would be the libertarian response to an argument that said that we should take from people who have a lot, just a little bit of their stuff and give it to people who don't have a lot because that makes for a better society.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Right. There are two elements of the libertarian take on that idea this kind of moralistic element and a more pragmatic element but moralistic element is that libertarians tend to take property rights very seriously. They think if you own something you should be able to do what you wanted and if somebody takes away her property or tells you whether you cannot do with it that is wrong and it doesn't matter if it is me doing it. Obviously it's not that I take your wallet from you without your consent even if I want to do something really good with your wallet like use it to help the poor so why is it any different when government is the one taking her money without your consent even if it is doing something really nice with your wallet. The second idea is more pragmatic which is that oftentimes government policies even those that are intending to help the less well-off are counterproductive. They often end up hurting the people that they try to hopefully put those two elements together into their reluctance on the part of libertarians to the idea of government using its coercive power to make the lives of the vulnerable better.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We are taking your calls if you would like to get in on this and give us your take on this new blog bleeding heart libertarians. The number is 188-895-5727 my guest is Matt Zwolinski, he is associate Prof. of philosophy at the University of San Diego. Eric is on the line from San Diego. Good morning Eric and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you, good morning.


NEW SPEAKER: I can't believe I finally found someone that agrees with me. All of my libertarian friends if you will shun me and my ideals. It is rather comforting to know that there is someone out there that I consider a progressive libertarian.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you heard that phrase before progressive libertarian?

MATT ZWOLINSKI: I have. There've been a number of different phrases I have, liberal libertarian is another one that they've used. Yeah, I knew people like Eric route there, but I too am surprised at just how many people are responding and responding positively to this idea.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Eric you encapsulated in some way the way they do blend your ideas of supporting personal property and free markets and also perhaps having a commitment to social justice?

NEW SPEAKER: Perhaps it's just that I'm getting older, but I think we have to recognize that as the world shrinks and the world gets smaller that there needs to be some sort of, we need to rise as a people.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, not just as individuals. Thank you for that call, Eric. He said the blog is being well-received it seems to have grabbed people.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: It does, I think the timing is just right for this idea in some sense. People as he said are growing increasingly tired of partisan politics and there is something in politics that leads us to focus on areas where we disagree with each other. It evokes this kind of group instincts in us that leads us to view it as us interacting in versus them and there are areas of disagreement between libertarians and liberals in between libertarians and conservatives but I think focusing as much as we have some areas of disagreement can be very counterproductive. There are tremendous areas of agreement especially I think between liberals and libertarians that have not been recognized because of the tendency for libertarians to have been associated with the political right for the last 50 or 60 years. Those areas are worth exploring and worth taking very seriously.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your blog bleeding heart libertarians has got some national recognition. Tell us about that.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Yeah, so we've been written up against in the blogosphere, Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic magazine has had some nice things to say about us. National review mentioned us in nearly blog post. And of course there have been a number of blogs that this is what is especially heartening, blogs on both the political left and political right but have responded very warmly to us. So it is nice to see that we are not just preaching to the choir but that people are actually willing to listen to different points of view which is exactly why we are attracted to.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Again we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bruce is on the line from downtown San Diego. Good morning Bruce.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are you guys doing? Thanks for having me on the show.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: I am perplexed because my understanding of libertarian is the absence of government and my sensibilities as a liberal is that government is the answer. I know that irks people to hear that government could actually do something good and that government could be the answer, but as the previous caller said getting together as a group is what will solve problems. Problems are too big for us to solve as individuals. We don't have to build our own homes we hire somebody to build bombs, we don't ask to sell property we hire institutions that do less for us that we have to pay taxes to do that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear Matt's libertarian response.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: So libertarians believe that the broad category of use and to put libertarians have different takes on just what the proper role of government is and some of them do believe that there is a proper role for government as well. I'm not one of them. Libertarians do tend to believe that government should be much much smaller and much less involved in our lives than it is right now. I think there is a myth in American society and I think it is a myth that has been promulgated especially by the political right that when the government gets involved or interferes in the economy it does so in a way that protects the interests of the poor and vulnerable from the wealthy and powerful. And maybe that's what would like government to do, but that is not in fact what government does. Look at the ways in which government is actually involved in the economy is usually benefiting the rich or at least the middle class at the expense of the poor. So, if you think, if you thought that government was usually helping the poor when it interfered in the economy than you might think that reducing government will hurt the poor but that's not the way that governments actually work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So take me down the road again, Matt, where you were taking my wallet and you don't have the right to take my wallet and use my money for good even if it is for a good purpose and therefore the government really sort of shouldn't take our money. They don't have the right to our personal property, so to speak. So how, therefore, can you go from that level to actually helping people who need some help. What it all be philosophically or could there be some sort of collective effort to help people who need help?

MATT ZWOLINSKI: The first thing I think that governments can do to help the poor is to stop hurting the poor so right now we have a number of government policies that are actively serving the interests of the poor. This takes the form of everything from various forms of corporate welfare programs, agricultural subsidies, I would say the war on drugs, kind of interventionist militaristic foreign policy. If we stop hurting the poor, get out of their way and let them help their selves that's one of the most important things we could do to advance their interests. But secondly, I suppose that I'm a less dogmatic libertarian than some and I think that while there is a strong moral presumption against the use of coercion to take some money from some people and give it to others to help them I think that is a presumption that could be overcome in some cases. So I am willing to believe that government should provide some kind of safety net to ensure that those who slip through the cracks of voluntary charity have something to fall back upon.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 188-895-5727 I'm speaking with Matt Zwolinski. He is creator of the blog bleeding heart libertarians. Liam is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, it's good to hear about your blog. I'm going to read and see if I can participate in it. Wanted to put out there that I've been of a similar mind for quite a while and although not necessarily a bleeding heart, I believe very strongly that each of us as an individual, we participate in society and civilization whether or not we believe that we want to we are still participating and I think the stability of any civilization requires a basic minimum standard for the participants have over the members of that society so if as a civilization we do not maintain at least a basic level baseline, then the civilization itself will collapse so as libertarian as we want to be, there is a paradox there and it is absolutely necessary that we provide fundamental education and make sure that people are not living on the streets and things like that because if we don't, the civilization allows us to be free would collapse around us and all the freedoms that we want would vanish with it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Liam, for that and your response, Matt?

MATT ZWOLINSKI: I think that is exactly right and the point that libertarians have to make in response to that idea is that it's important not to underestimate the ability of voluntary action in free markets to provide that kind of stability on their own. I mean, people acting without government involvement through either of voluntary mechanisms of civil society or through the mechanisms of the free market can generate wealth and opportunities that have not only can but have in our history provided tremendous opportunities for the vast majority of societies so the question is just what to do about those people who slip through the cracks, whose boats are not listed by the rising tide. And I think it is important both for reasons kind of pragmatic reasons of stability and former philosophical reasons of political legitimacy to ensure that there is a mechanism in place to protect those people who slip through the cracks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In traditional libertarianism does people would basically just be allowed to sink, isn't that right?

MATT ZWOLINSKI: In a way. Depends on what you mean by traditional libertarianism. If by traditional libertarianism you are looking back at 50 or 60 years like people Ayn Rand or murder is the primary rough part, those people to take a fairly strict stance against government involvement even at the level of a fairly minimal safety net, but if you look backwards a little further in history who were really the origins of libertarian thought I have in mind here people like John Walker, people like Adam Smith and even more contemporary people like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman all of those people advocated a fairly substantial role for government for providing basic goods and a public safety net. I like to think of those people as classical liberals rather than libertarians and are sometimes a distinction that helps clarify the difference.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. These people who founded a stream of libertarian thought might actually be more socially progressive than many people who are libertarian are very conservative these days.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Yeah. I think that mainstream view of libertarian radicalized in a kind of way in the later half of the 20th century. In a way that sets them apart from their philosophical origins.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. Cathy is on the line from San Diego. Good morning Cathy, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I just woke up to this wonderful conversation. I'm interested in number one the libertarian roots of the tea party and I would like for him to maybe touch on paleo libertarians, anarcho libertarians, that new wave strain of libertarians that we are experiencing in San Diego and I will take it offline.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much Cathy, I appreciate it

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Thanks. I'm not sure I can answer all those questions, to take the tea party I think there are certainly some libertarian elements within the tea party. I think this is again part of the dissatisfaction that we have with the traditional political labels of political and conservative, people accept the conservative party that is the Republican Party has done so little to enact policies of fiscal conservatism. Seems like fiscal conservatism is the kind of rhetoric that they use when they are on that campaign trail but as soon as entitlement spending or defense spending comes up it goes right out the window so there are elements within the tea party who want to see the idea of fiscal conservatism which is a key element of the libertarian agenda. I think more consistently enacted. As for paleo libertarians I am not quite sure what that term means I do know an anarcho libertarian. We actually have a few of those on the blog and those are libertarians who think actually that there shouldn't be any role for the state, that in fact everything can be provided for by voluntary means or on the free market including police and military services. Then again, they have this kind of idea that like it would be nice if the government provided the services and used them may be for the common good, but if you look at what governments actually do and what the police forces and military services actually do it doesn't always live up to the ideal.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One question I have about the libertarian love of free markets and trust in free markets is that even though yes indeed free-market capitalism has raised the level of society to a significant extent free markets seem to trip up in the most damaging ways on a frequent basis. And I think having that kind of trust in the ongoing goodness, you know, the rightness for society from free markets is something that puzzles me because of that.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: Right. There is going to be a certain amount of social disruption under a capitalist economic system and this is something that both the critics and supporters of capitalism have long recognized. So for instance the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter like to talk about the creative discretion of capitalist markets. It is a great distruction. It offers tremendous opportunities and wealth for people but it is destructive. It leaves a swath of destruction in its path of bygone ways of life and bygone ways of production are no longer deemed efficient. So you certainly have that. You might also worry about things like the financial crisis. And a lot of people have said that the financial crisis of 2008 is a kind of indictment of capitalism or that the Great Depression was an indictment of capitalism. That is a little harder argument to make because there are a lot of entangling causes there. It's not as though we have a purely free market in the US right now or that we ever have had such a system. So it is difficult to tell when we see a financial crisis arise what is it that is causing the crisis, is it market mechanisms or the extent of government involvement that we have in the free market.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Fair enough. Let's take another call. Jeff is calling from Del Mar. Welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I want to talk a little bit more about classical liberalism. Adam Smith was the author of the theory of moral sentiments. That was his first book but he was in a professor of moral philosophy at the time, the book begins however selfish soever man may be supposed there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him. Now, Smith was a disciple of David Hume in some ways. And he'll might think in his essays which are a big source for the wealth of Nations also was turned to somehow dedicate between two powerful influences, man and the third Earl of Shaftesbury.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jeff this is a much larger conversation than we have time for right now but the opening phrase, the opening sentence that Jeff talked about, that seems to be, that seems to encapsulate some of what it is that you are trying, that the discussion you are trying to get going on this blog.

MATT ZWOLINSKI: That is a beautiful passage it is one of my favorites from Smith. Yet there is a long tradition of viewing Adam Smith is a kind of paradox because on the one hand he was the author of the wealth of nations which said that men are selfish and that they are led by this invisible hand to promote the welfare of others but because they wanted to make people better off but because they want to make themselves better off and on the other hand he was also the author of the theory of moral sentiments which says that actually human beings to take an intrinsic interest in the welfare of others so how can you possibly reconcile these two things and I think actually they can be reconciled and actually there is a pretty large body of literature on Adam Smith right now that thinks that this so called Adam Smith problem can be resolved and that is what I think we are trying to do it at the bleeding hearts blog is shown how the free market can be reconciled with the concern not just for other people but for those who have most especially need our help the poor and vulnerable members of society.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We had so many people who wanted to join the conversation but we simply do not have time but I want to invite them all not only to go to Days but to go to your blog bleeding heart libertarians and join the conversation right there they can just Google bleeding heart Right?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right Matt Zwolinski, thank you so much and please stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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