Bleed the Freak: Libertarian Re-Distributive Justice

These stand for me
Name your god and bleed the freak
I’d like to see
How you all would bleed for me

Bleed the Freak

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism appears to be new academic blog organized around an effort to promote “social justice” within libertarianism. On a superficial level, I have to chuckle a bit. Perhaps the only thing more unpopular than the flag burning libertarian(rejection of American Exceptionalism) is the “bleeding heart liberal(empathy as the foundation for “re-distributive justice”). In academia, “Rawlsian justice” may be well respected principle, but in politics, “bleeding heart liberal” is not a principle, it’s an accusation…and a particularly toxic one at that. Obviously, this perhaps presents a bit of dilemma for the academics when a principle of “social justice” has no cachet in larger society. Indeed, I can trace the modern morphing of the word “liberal” into “progressive” as a direct consequence of the 60s counter-culture that obliterated any empathetic rational for social redistribution from the political lexicon. Liberal became a demonized word meaning redistribution to hippies and single black women, classes of people that elicited little empathy from the American Taxpayer. Gradually, “liberals” would drop the liberal identify for “progressive” and the adopt of the language of “investment” rather than spending.

Investment, of course, implies a whole set of accompanying responsibilities–i.e., behavior control. “Rawlsian Justice” is doomed when this “restitution” of luck egalitarianism results in an obligation on the part of the recipients. It destroys the “empathy” basis for the so-called “Veil of Ignorance.” There is no empathy for disobedience. “Luck egalitarianism” ends up meaning that the price of disobedience by the least advantaged is being “Shit out of Luck” when it comes to prison incarceration. This reality is empirically demonstrated by the Drug War, which, frankly, makes a mockery of Rawlsian Justice.

Historically, there is good reason why libertarianism rejects any legal basis for social justice(“social contract”). Law is not justice, it is force. Articulated most plainly and succinctly by Bastiat’s “The Law.” The proper application of this force is the correction of injustice. This distinction between justice and force vis a vis law is what differentiates the libertarian from the progressive. The progressive view of law as means for re-distributive justice is deconstructed by the libertarians as legitimization of force as a means for “re-distributive justice.” In short, law as an instrument of theft. The vague abstraction of the “Social Contract” is supposed to neuter the libertarian charge of theft. But the libertarian asks just what is “Social Justice”? What are the proper ends that legitimize force as means? Who decides these proper ends. Typically, the rejoinder consists of some appeal to “democratic collective will.” But this is a supernatural concept that lacks support from Social Science, namely:

(1) Arrow Impossibility Theorem: ranked, transitive Social Preferences derived from a set of ordinal individual preferences are either irrational, dictatorial or meaningless
(2) The Logic of Collective Action: minorities will dominate large-scale collective action.

The Arrow and Public Choice critique would seem to put an end to the Paretian Liberal, a creature born from the welfare economics that had emerged from neoclassical equilibrium theory. Do social preferences exist? In a society with heterogeneous individual preferences, the answer is largely no. Yet a whole social science called “Social Choice” emerged to find a way out of Arrow’s “Impossibility.” Social Choice is largely about making the case where interpersonal, cardinal utility calculations can be introduced that can allow for a meaningful Social Preference. Amartya Sen, for example, proposed the idea of “information broadening” that would create a de facto social consensus to allow interpersonal, cardinal utility calculations for some individual utility. For Sen, it is universalism via political consensus, one that it is arrived at via reasoned public discourse in the context of increased information. On certain matters, particularly with regard to core redistribution issues, cardinal utility could then trump ordinal individual preference.

But Sen’s attempt to rescue Social Preference suffers from obvious empirical problems. Fox News and MSNBC make a mockery of Sen’s “information broadening.” It’s clear that increased information, politically, drives a market for values validation and not reasoned consensus. It actually reinforces ordinal individual preference rather than serving as any basis for the holy grail of cardinal utility. Politics is and remains, at surface, largely the art/game of de-legitimization of the other side. Social Choice simply cannot survive politics.

But Politics below the surface is even worse still regarding it being any instrument of re-distributive justice. Here’s where the logic of collective action takes over. There’s “redistribution” going on, but it’s not the type that meets any criteria for Pareto efficiency. Most of it involves decisions made by the few that benefit the few while externalizing the costs to the many. As Anthony De Jasay wrote in “Against Politics:”

Nine-tenths of practical politics is the making of non-unanimous decisions by some, which hurt others. Do we really want such decisions imposed as rational means to ends that are ultimately neither rational nor irrational, and must be posited by brazen assertion, mystical communion with the good, or occult-value-comparisons between persons? Pareto-optimal outcomes offer a minimally morally legitimate space for a minimal state, and no more…

In other words, if we look at the massive scope of centralization in Washington, the endless legislative hearings of a myriad number of subcommittees, the endless number of bureaucratic executive agencies, and the uncountable number of spawning regulatory czars, it’s obvious that this is not about Pareto efficiency or social justice. This is about something else. The final proof in the pudding is when this monstrosity, the end product of “enlightenment liberalism,” spews out the secret police. Now that this has happened, it’s time to put down Madison and pick up Orwell.

The problem with bleeding heart liberalism/libertarianism can thusly be summed up:

(i) In a heterogeneous society with heterogeneous ordered individual preferences, the notion of “Social Preference,” the basis of any “Pareto Justice,” is more or less impossible. Well almost…Perhaps the “American Dream” comes closest to Sen’s idea of a “social consensus,” but this actually works as a perverse counter to Pareto. Those on the receiving end of this type of re-distributive justice are held to an obligation; there is a little empathy for those who fail to meet this obligation(society then tolerates a Police State preying on the bottom of society), and to the extent that this “social consensus” becomes subsidized, it becomes expensive for everyone, meaning if you want to live the lifestyle of the “social consensus,” the price is your obedience.

(ii) The Logic of Collective Action is not to resolve (i) as a Collective Action Problem. Indeed, at bottom, there really can’t be a collective action problem vis a vis (i) to resolve because there is no real social preference in that regard to begin. The Logic of Collective Action skews toward theft/plunder, and (i) is really about a “social consensus” that legitimizes or glorifies plunder. To recall Bastiat:

When plunder has become a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.

This is not to say, however, that libertarianism is not concerned with re-distributive justice. On the contrary, it was born from the injustice of “liberal institutionalism.” However, it attacks the root, meaning it’s concerned with re-distribution from the bottom to the top rather than re-distribution from top to bottom. In other words, it is concerned with Plutocracy and exploitation, products of monopoly, legitimized by the “social contract”. In libertarianism, “Fairness” is a product of commutative justice, not distributive justice.

Laissez Faire, born from the radical liberal class critique of political economy, particularly against monopoly privledges serving politico/economic ends of a permanent war economy, means governance by civil society that is an institutionally emergent product of commutative justice.

This is what libertarianism historically actually means.

So, even though I may share many of the values of “bleeding heart libertarians,” I’m not down with “Compassionate Libertarianism” because it is operating under some mistaken notion that libertarianism somehow needs to come to grips with the collective action failures of liberal distributive justice, when in fact it has done so from the start. This question:

Property rights, markets, and many of the resulting distributions of wealth and opportunities may have arisen spontaneously. But this does not prevent us from asking whether they are just, and whether we should or should not work to change them in some ways – even if the complexity of the market order and our bounded cognitive abilities means that our capacity for successful interventions is limited.

is nothing new, except it is treated, in the libertarian tradition, as a problem of commutative justice and not distributive justice. In distributive justice, who exactly is this “we”– as in who is the “we” that decides if there should be intervention and who is the “we” that carries it out? It turns out, it is the same “we” who decides that “we” have the power to grope “our” genitalia before boarding an airplane and “we” have the right to invade our private property with armed thugs if “we” are suspected of smoking a non-approved plant. And this is the problem…

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