Inside USD

USD Professor’s Blog Strikes Responsive Chord

Monday, March 14, 2011

University of San Diego Associate Professor of Philosophy Matt Zwolinski likes free markets. He also believes in social justice.

So, apparently, do a lot of other people.

On March 3, Zwolinski and several fellow philosophers launched a new blog “Bleeding Heart Libertarians”. Less than 48 hours later, it was attracting more than 12,000 hits per day and gathering favorable comments across the Blogosphere.

The blog is devoted to exploring the intersection between political libertarians — those who favor minimal government interference in citizens’ economic and civil liberties — and advocates of social justice — those who hold that society has a special moral obligation to care for its most vulnerable members.

“Traditionally these two groups have been diametrically opposed to each other,” Zwolinksi said. “Libertarians tend to see talk of ’social justice’ as a rationalization for the expansion of government power and advocates of social justice tend to see libertarians as at best, cold-hearted, and at worst apologists for the wealthy and powerful against the poor and oppressed.”

But he sees the blog as an advocate for a kind of “liberaltarian” ideal blending both the libertarian belief in property rights and the free market with the ideals of social or distributive justice.

“What we have in common on this blog is an appreciation for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty,” he said. “But we appreciate those things, in large part, because of the way they contribute to important human goods — and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those  goods.”

The philosophy struck a chord with leaders in the world of politics and ideas. Blogs from both sides of the political spectrum, including the National Review, Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, welcomed its creation.

The writers of the blog “are performing a valuable service in making other versions of libertarianism better known to their fellow philosophers, and even more so by developing the analytical foundations of those views in their scholarship,” commented Ilya Somin on a post for “The Volkoh Conspiracy” blog.

“Bleeding heart libertarians believe, unlike many on the political left,” said Zwolinski, “that genuinely free markets do a very good job of meeting then needs of the poor and vulnerable. True, they generate inequalities as well, but think about it this way. In 1900 there was much more equality in American society than there is today but this is largely because we were all equally poor. By comparison with 1900, everyone in America is fabulously rich today, and we can afford to use some of that surplus to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. That accumulation of wealth wasn’t inevitable or an accident. It’s the forseeable result of the economic institutions we have adopted and the technological growth and progress they make possible.”

In terms of helping the poor for example, “One of the single most important things we could do to help fight poverty in the world — and it is a pity that more on the left have not made this argument — is to tear down barriers to trade between countries,” he said. “Protectionist policies in the United States and European Union — especially in the area of agriculture — are propping up special interests on the backs of the global poor.”

But bleeding heart libertarians also have issues with the right, he added. “The conservative idea that government ‘interference’ with economic freedom usually takes the form of hurting the rich to help the poor is a myth. Government interference in the market is almost always exercised on behalf of the wealthy. Eliminating these pro-business interventions in the economy should be the number one priority of anyone genuinely committed to a free market.”

Zwolinski suspects that the blog’s success has to do with people’s desire to find political common ground in an era of political divisiveness. “I wanted to open up a dialogue between groups that don’t communicate as much or as fruitfully as they should: between academic political philosophers and the broader public, and between those on the political ‘left’ with a concern for social justice and those on the political ‘right’ who find much to admire in a market society,” Zwolinski said. “It’s been tremendously gratifying to see how many people have responded positively to that message, and how productive the conversation has been so far.”

Along with Zwolinksi, the blog features posts by Jason Brennan (Brown University), Andrew J. Cohen (Georgia State University), Roderick Long (Auburn University) Daniel Shapiro (West Virginia University), Fernando Te?on (The Florida State University), Jacob Levy (McGill University), and James Stacey Taylor (The College of New Jersey).

– Liz Harman

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