BHL is dead, long live BHL?

The Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog has ended due, I think, as Henry Farrell intuits to creative differences between the founders. Jason Brennan, who was recently making by far the most contributions to the blog, has joined a new blog set up by Jessica Flanigan, 200-proof liberals. [Corrected to reflect who set up what]

I liked the orientation of BHL but I never liked the label. My way into libertarianism was noticing the state insisted on locking people up for taking or selling drugs and putting gay men in docks to justify their private sexual interests. I did not think you should trust such a violent entity with something important like poverty aveliation. There was nothing heartless about my state skepticism. The label ‘BHL’ on some readings suggests there was.

When I realised things were a little more complicated and counter-intuitive when it came to political authority, my ideology shifted to classical liberalism. I now believe that welfare provision can (and should) be disentangled from the more coercive aspects of the state. This is a case of my theorising getting a head, rather than a heart. Libertarians do not need lack for heart. If everyone naturally respected each other’s rights and were generous with those less fortunate than themselves, you would have as much as an ideal society as any liberal egalitarian could offer. Reality means that what purist libertarians have to offer is often not going to work than various statist alternatives.

One of the divisions within BHL was whether it was worth engaging sympathetically with John Rawls’ theory of justice. Both Brennan and Jess Flanigan have written pointed criticisms of Rawls’ framework. They argue that Rawlsian distinctions between basic liberties (to be constitutionally enshrined) and other liberties that are inessential for liberal political life fail. Flanigan argues that all liberties could be essential depending on the specific life plans that people may have, so the distinction between basic and non-basic fails. Brennan argues that Rawls’ own ‘moral powers’ tests for what makes a liberty basic are so rigorous that highly non-liberal regimes could pass them, at least in principle.

I disagree. Engagement with Rawls’ framework among classical liberals still has intellectual pay-offs in terms of discovering what a free and fair society looks like. A Rawlsian case for liberal democracy and capitalism follows from some logical extrapolations of Rawls’ principles alongside some updated empirical evidence. The case can be made according to Rawls’ notion of public reason.

It has proven a little difficult so far to get contemporary Rawlsians to take this reconciliation between right and left liberalisms seriously. When Tomasi wrote in Free Market Fairness about libertarians and liberals being stuck in two opposing camps, he was not exaggerating! But I do not think that is a flaw in Rawls’ framework that was developed thanks to sustained engagement with economic theory. Most contemporary Rawlsians are more engaged in the philosophy of Rawls rather than the political economy that motivates some of his claims about regime types. But Rawls was pretty interdisciplinary and the addition of refined economic theory is compatible with his logic and framework.