Seven reasons progressives should be more libertarian

Matt Zwolinski Associate Professor, University of San Diego
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I am a bleeding heart libertarian. Like libertarians in general, I believe in free markets, private property, strong civil liberties and limited government. But unlike standard libertarians, and like progressives, I believe in social justice. I believe, in other words, that the legitimacy of political and economic institutions depends on their being justifiable to all persons who are subject to them, including, and perhaps especially including, the poor and vulnerable.

Bleeding heart libertarians are fighting a philosophical battle on two fronts. On one front, we are trying to convince other libertarians to take the idea of social justice seriously. For me, the fact that respect for private property rights and free markets generally serves the interest of the poor is not just a happy coincidence, it is an essential element in the justification of those institutions. And this means, at least as I understand it, that when and if libertarian institutions fail to meet this justificatory challenge, they must be modified or abandoned. Thus, for me, there is a strong connection between being a bleeding heart libertarian and being a classical liberal, rather than a strict minimal state libertarian. In principle, at least, we must be open to the possibility that activities beyond the scope of the minimal state, such as public goods provision or redistribution, will be not only permissible but morally mandatory.

Making this case to my fellow libertarians is important, but it is not the task I undertake here. In this post, I want to make an initial advance on the second front — convincing progressives that they ought to be more libertarian. I believe that many of the moral values embraced by progressives are better realized by political and economic institutions endorsed by libertarians. In this respect, the difference between libertarians and progressives is over means, not ends. Of course, values matter too, and some values such as economic liberty and opposition to coercion have become so closely associated with libertarianism as to seem distinctive of it. But this, I hope to show, is a mistake. Progressives have good reason to embrace these values too, not necessarily as substitutes for their own fundamental commitments, but at least as supplements to them.

One essay will not turn a progressive into Milton Friedman. But my goal here is more modest. What I want to do is convince progressives to be more libertarian than they currently are. In other words, I think progressives should, at the margin, be more willing to trust the realization of their values to free markets and the voluntary actions of civil society, and less willing to trust them to government. Here are seven reasons why.

1) Government is coercive. You’ve probably heard libertarians claim that “taxation is theft.” Or possibly even that universal health care is slavery. And, if you’re like most non-libertarians, you probably rolled your eyes and wrote this off as, at best, irresponsible hyperbole. But whatever you think of these slogans, they contain an important element of truth. Government is coercive. When government decides that wealthy Peter should give some money to poor Paul, it doesn’t just ask. It demands. And its demands are backed by the threat of fines, which themselves are backed by the threat of imprisonment, which in turn is backed by the threat of physical force. The same is true of every restriction on speech, diet or commerce that the government imposes. It is true that all but extreme pacifists believe that the use of force against individuals is sometimes morally justifiable. But we should likewise recognize that it is a serious matter, all the more so for the fact that the coerciveness of government’s rules is often obscured by its social acceptability and legal formality. It is a hallmark of political liberalism that people with different tastes, religions and moral commitments should be able to live together under a regime of peaceful toleration. All of us accept that it is wrong for us as individuals to use violence against our neighbors to get them to do the things we think they ought to do. Is it really so much less wrong when the violence is committed by the government instead?

2) Regulation is often intended to serve the interests of the powerful, not the vulnerable. Progressives often see government regulation as a necessary check on the power of big business. But this is a mistake. From the New Deal to the 2008 bailouts, government involvement in the economy has generally served to enhance, not limit, the power of established corporations. Businesses talk a good game when it comes to laissez faire, but when push comes to shove, established firms fear the competition that free markets create. Whenever they can, they will seek to suppress that competition by use of political, rather than economic, means. Libertarians therefore believe that limiting corporate power over politics is not merely a means of getting the right people in office, or of passing tighter restrictions on campaign financing. As long as government agents have extensive power to tax, regulate and subsidize commerce, they will use that power in a way that serves their own interests and the interests of those with sufficient political and economic clout to be of value to them.

3) Even if government wants to help the vulnerable, it often cannot. Suppose you are a politician who wants to help victims of natural disasters. After hearing horror stories of people being charged $12 for a bag of ice in the wake of a hurricane, you decide to pass a law to protect them by outlawing price-gouging. It seems simple enough. But will such a law really help? Suppose your law prohibits people from selling ice at more than $5 per bag. Those who are lucky enough to be able to purchase ice at this lower price will certainly benefit from your law. But what about those who cannot purchase ice at all? Will there not almost certainly be more such people when the price is capped below the competitive market level? Ideally, you could set the maximum price at a level that is high enough to attract new supply but low enough to prevent exploitation. But what would that price be? And how would you know it? Good intentions, even when they exist, are not enough. As the example of price-gouging shows, government attempts to help the vulnerable face severe problems of unintended consequences and insufficient knowledge, problems that the decentralized decision making of a market system are well designed to address.

4) Economic growth is overwhelmingly important. And not just for bow-tied economists with an obsession for abstract aggregations. Economic growth matters for ordinary people, and probably especially for the poor and vulnerable. Even Peter Singer, who is not generally regarded as an apostle of free markets, notes in his 2009 book The Life You Can Save that “economic growth has … reduced the proportion of South Asians living in extreme poverty from 60 percent in 1981 to 42 percent in 2005.” On a global scale, the World Bank estimates that the number of people living on less than $1.25 has declined from 1.9 billion in 1981 to 1.4 billion in 2005 — from about four in every ten persons to less than one in every four. The lesson is this: You can make small dents in poverty by taking wealth from some people and giving it to others. But to make big changes — to make the kind of changes that have dramatic effects on people’s quality and quantity of life that last for generation after generation, you cannot just redistribute wealth. You need to create it. And creating wealth is just what free markets do best.

5) Economic liberty is as important as civil liberty. Libertarians share with progressives a commitment to civil liberties like freedom of speech, religion and association. But progressives usually place economic liberties — freedom of contract, freedom to privately own and profit from productive property, freedom to choose one’s profession — on a lower tier. Libertarians believe that economic freedom is important not merely because it produces good results for society, but for precisely the same reasons that traditional civil liberties matter — they are an important element of personal autonomony and well-being. Progressives like Matt Yglesias are to be commended for recognizing the evils of occupational licensure, most of which are not only designed to support powerful economic interests at the expense of the weak (see point 2, above), but which prevent marginalized individuals from exercising the entrepreneurial talents for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Licensure laws, however, are only the tip of the iceberg, and libertarian institutions like The Institute for Justice have been at the forefront of the fight against eminent domain abuse and other restrictions that keep the little guy down.

6) Libertarianism is about more than economics. Progressives who are critical of libertarianism tend to focus their criticism on libertarians’ economic prescriptions. This is understandable, because this is precisely the area on which libertarians and progressives have the greatest disagreements. But while it is tempting for those of us who like to debate politics to focus on areas of conflict, it is not necessarily productive or illuminating. For it obscures the vast range of policy issues on which libertarian and progressive principles converge. And this is especially counterproductive given the importance of the issues on which libertarians and progressives agree. Making a significant change in a libertarian/progressive direction on any one of these issues would make a tremendous difference in the freedom and well-being of a great number of people. Consider: libertarians and progressives both favor radically dismantling existing barriers to freedom of migration, a policy which if effected would allow millions of people around the globe to better their lives by fleeing unjust and inefficient regimes, and moving to societies where their productive labors are appreciated (not here, apparently). Libertarians and progressives both strongly oppose the wasted lives and resources of our unnecessary and unjust military adventures. Both oppose the war on drugs, and the devastation it has wrought on families, communities and civil liberties. And even on economic issues, there is a good deal of overlap, as both progressives and libertarians oppose corporate welfare and our indefensible agricultural subsidies.

7) Spontaneous order is more powerful than you think. It is natural to want the government to protect and promote our most important values. After all, when governments try to do something of value, they come up with a plan. “Leaving things to the market,” by contrast, doesn’t sound like much of a plan at all. But plans are overrated. Or, at least, singular overarching and one-size-fits-all plans are overrated. The great virtue of a free society is that it allows for a multiplicity of plans, and for the emergence of success through an evolutionary, trial and error process. That free individuals nevertheless manage to coordinate their separate plans to create even so simple an object as a pencil, let alone an entire complexly interwoven economy, should strike us with awe at the information- and incentive-providing powers of the market price system. But the virtues of a free society aren’t limited to its production of economic goods. As the private sector and community response to Hurricane Katrina made abundantly clear, spontaneous order is a tool for the production of moral goods as well. The lesson is this: cutting back on government spending doesn’t mean leaving people to fend for themselves as lonely, isolated individuals. It means leaving caring individuals and communities free to act on their noblest instincts, and structuring economic incentives in a way that channels their basest instincts toward the social good.

These are my reasons for thinking that progressives should have greater confidence in free markets and civil society to realize their values, and less confidence in government regulation. But even if progressives are not convinced by that claim, I hope they are convinced by another one: namely, that political disagreement does not always, or even usually, imply an irreconcilable conflict of fundamental values. Progressives and libertarians should realize that they share many more values in common than they probably think, and that their different political prescriptions are less the product of an epic battle of good vs. evil and more a function of reasonable disagreement regarding how to prioritize and realize their common goals. Even if disagreement persists, bearing this point in mind should make that disagreement a more civil and productive one.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.