Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

For me, bleeding heart libertarianism is not as much a philosophy as it is a marketing strategy.  The origins of “liberaltarianism” are found in the fact that the conventional libertarian philosophy — embodied by property rights “absolutism” — simply  does not resonate amongst the majority of people.  It is difficult for someone to accept that, in the grand scheme of things, property rights are more important than, say, a welfare check that allows someone to survive.

Bleeding heart libertarianism is about re-packaging libertarian ideas in a way that is  acceptable to others.  It is not a call to abandon your ideals and principles.  At most, it suggests that you ought to explore new angles of looking at what you already believe in.  It is about accepting the fact that people do not agree with you and, as such, you need to change tactics.

People who reject the bleeding heart program out of a belief that it will dilute the message are simply unwilling to really come to terms with what the program is putting forth.  Outright rejection of new ideas and perspectives is the same thing as a rejection of intellectual progress; it is a reactionary, conservative attitude that does not help libertarian philosophy.

  • Mattheus von Guttenberg

    I absolutely agree and have been suggesting to this to people for a while. You cannot expect a wide adoption of libertarian principles if you only use one type of “argument” to work on everyone. I’ve convinced a fair number of my friends to become more libertarian by appealing to more liberal and social matters. Sticking to one type of marketing strategy is narrow thinking.

  • Jacob Roundtree

    You aver that you are and other libertarians should affirm the bleeding heart doctrine for marketing purposes. But what then is the substantive difference between your position and that of those who simply reject the bleeding heart program. Ultimately you and the reactionaries would employ different rhetorical strategies but the substance of your message and your core commitments would be the same. More importantly, implicit in your approach to adopting the BHL standpoint is the assumption that there is no need to engage in a serious rethinking of libertarianism along BHL lines, which would only make sense if you were certain that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with libertarianism (at least from the perspective of a commitment to the ideal of social justice).

    If we are to take BHL seriously wouldn’t it require us to rigorously question libertarian ideals and principles and to recognize the possibility that at the end of such inquiry we may have to substantially revise the libertarian doctrine? Also, it seems that you view BHL as a fixed doctrine and not a flexible and progressive research agenda, whose adherents and practitioners do not know where it might lead them. Is this a correct interpretation of your position?

    • Jonathan Finegold Catalán

      A better question: what is the substantive difference between conventional libertarianism, broadly considered, and bleeding heart libertarianism? I hold that it’s not much. True, a bleeding heart libertarian may reject property rights absolutism, including a natural rights approach — as I do —, but on-the-whole retains the essence of libertarianism. In a sense, I’m channeling a little bit of Alexander McCobin.

      Bleeding heart libertarianism, I think, revolves around sympathy for the poor. You don’t need to revise most libertarian comprehensive doctrines, whether they are right or wrong, to show that in some way they all hold sympathy for the poor. Most libertarians believe that their philosophy is one that holds that the outcomes of a libertarian society are better for all. I think that even die-hard absolutist doctrines are originally conceived only because their creators hold the outcomes to be morally permissible by a liberal standard, even if they don’t like to admit it.

      I absolutely do think that many libertarian doctrines require revising — I, myself, operate on a philosophical belief that is diametrically opposed to a lot of other libertarian philosophies. An internal revision, though, isn’t required to be able to approach bleeding heart libertarianism on open terms, even if once you accept it you might find reasons to revise what you believe in. So, to answer your last question, I don’t think BHL is necessarily a progressive, dynamic agenda, even though it is often invoked by progressive, dynamic libertarians looking to redesign libertarian philosophy.

      • Dan

        I’m not sure I fully understand what “property rights absolutism” is, however property rights is the only possible way to resolve conflict over scarce resources. Do you not agree with this? therefore, it must be the starting point of any science or philosophy that deals with this issue.

        • Jonathan Finegold Catalán

          Property rights “absolutism” is a characterization of a strong libertarian principle that property rights trump all other values, so that property rights must be respected before, say, the poor are fed through some kind of redistribution program. In other words, someone might publicly oppose taxation, because it is an infringement on property rights. This probably won’t persuade a lot of people. Someone else might argue that taxation is not a permanent means to the end sought. It really comes down to appealing to what values people hold the highest.

  • Dan

    The ideas are not acceptable because they are usually shocking, too thought provoking, and quite frankly, scary as hell for the regular guy first confronted with the truth. But this is precisely the point- are you here to convince people of your conviction for what the truth really is, or are you here to sell people a “program” or “religion” that you call libertarian philosophy, while the unpleasant truth is buried under the mattress, at least for the time being, because apparently you believe people simply cannot handle the truth? However, I believe you have it backwards.

    The truth is that the government is not legitimate and people are simply not aware of this. It should be the first task of the knowledgeable libertarian to inform them of this, and then to argue the case, unpleasant as it may be, and believe me I know fully well how unpleasant it can be. But there is no other way! You cannot fight this beast by resorting to pure economics. It’s too complex and it requires too much knowledge. You must undermine the legitimacy of the beast by showing them that what they know is nothing but a fantasy, an illusion that doesn’t exist, and revealing to them the true nature of government. Once you do that, you will be surprise how people become more open minded about your insight into economics and the benefit of the free society.

    • Jonathan Finegold Catalán

      I see your point. But, it’s not about hiding the truth; again, it’s not about diluting the message. It is about communicating the message in such a way that the other person will accept it.

  • Thomas Bogle


    I agree with the marketing strategy of the concept of BHL, but I also don’t think that means we have to give up on an absolutist position towards property rights. I do take a bit of a religious approach to this (as you will see in my blog, if you look), so we may not begin from the same premises. However, I think that an absolutist approach to property rights actually reaffirms the position that humanity can help each other out, both through trade and through generosity, without the intermediary of any government agency. I recently attended a meeting where Russ Roberts encouraged the audience that the best way to begin to “convert” people to a liberty-centered mindset was to simply be a good neighbor. I may be wrong, but it seems like this is more of what you are advocating for, which I can agree with wholeheartedly. Instead of making concessions on our principles, we lead with the idea that people can simply help each other out and demonstrate that government does not need to act as the intermediary of that transaction. Once we can help reaffirm people’s faith in humanity, then we can get into some of the more complex concepts. It’s kind of a “milk before meat” approach.

    • Jonathan Finegold Catalán

      I agree that accepting BHL as a marketing tool doesn’t imply a need to give up on property rights absolutism. I, for all intents and purposes, am a property rights absolutism (if we want to call Mises that), because I understand that property rights are absolutely essential in society to allow for the division of labor. But, we have to package these ideas in ways which emphasize the role of property rights in improving the conditions of the poorest members of society.

      Related to what Jacob wrote above, I think that once we reconcile what property rights “absolutists” have to say with BHL, we find that many bleeding heart libertarians will have to reconsider their departure with conventional libertarian theory.

  • Beefcake the Mighty

    Would the average IQs of blacks become equal to those for whites under your system of libertarianism?

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