Friday, June 3, 2011

An update on my thoughts on the "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" blog

Back in March, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians was launched with much fanfare and a little head scratching in some quarters (Peter Boettke wondered whether the distinction was "more rhetorical than substantive".

After following them for couple months I have to say I'm a little disappointed too. The immediate impetus for writing about this disappointment was this post by Fernando Teson. It follows in a long tradition of posts (Arnold Kling and Chidem Kurdas do this a lot too, although Kling has not seemed to be doing it as much recently) of essentially telling progressives what it is they believe, and then proceeding to debunk the ideas that they have attributed to them.

For example, Teson writes: "If progressives became really convinced that open markets helped the poor and if all they cared about was helping the poor, they would have to support open markets. However, the cost of doing this would be prohibitive, because they would have to give up their emotional commitment to vividly altruistic social engineering. This commitment, and not concern for the poor, is what centrally animates the progressive agenda."

How exactly am I supposed to react to this? All the progressives I regularly read and listen to are convinced that open markets help the poor, and I'm certainly convinced of that as well. No progressives I regularly read and listen to naive about "vividly altruistic social engineering", and that's certainly not what animates their agenda. Perhaps I'm not a progressive? That's possible. I've been loathe to outright embrace the label in the past. But I think most readers would agree I'm closer to that than I am to being a libertarian.

Teson goes on: "So BHLs [Bleeding Heart Libertarians] must shrug their shoulders and continue to defend these fundamental empirical propositions: that markets help the poor; that the correlation between private property rights and prosperity is undeniable; that very often government intervention is harmful or counterproductive; and so on."

I've already noted that my firm belief that markets help the poor. Everybody on here knows that the biggest problems I point to that require a public solution are externalities - cases where property rights break down or can't function for some reason or another. So clearly I embrace the idea that the correlation between private property rights and prosperity is undeniable. And I'm also not naive about the idea that government intervention is often harmful and counterproductive. So again - how to take this? Am I just not a progressive? Does that mean I'm a libertarian? Perhaps - but I have serious doubts about that (if I were a libertarian I think you all would have let me know it by now).

Teson continues: "It is not just that progressives do not value economic liberties –although that would be enough to build a high wall separating both camps. In addition, the account of human rights by both camps diverges considerably. Progressives tend to support so-called “socio-economic” rights. They even argue, at least sometimes, that these welfare rights are normatively equivalent to traditional civil liberties."

Hmmmm. Again - have you ever heard me promote positive rights on here? Nope. It's been negative rights all the way, baby! Not natural rights, granted - but it has unequivocally been negative rights.

Teson then says: "Progressives succumb to the seductive enticements of political power in ways that no BHL [Bleeding Heart Libertarian] worth his salt can accept."

I'm going to stick to the maxim "if you don't have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all" in my response to this little piece of condescension.

And: "Progressives tend to be soft on authoritarian “socialist” regimes. They are reluctant to criticize Castro, even today, and they have historically made excuses for the crimes of the Soviet Union. What could possibly be the theoretical underpinning of such an attitude, if it’s not the twin convictions that capitalism is suspect and (more alarmingly) that individual liberty is not so important after all?"

What?!?!? And now we're apologists for totalitarianism? This is where I started to realize Teson and I have two really fundamentally different groups of people in mind when we use the term "progressive". Teson seems to be concerning himself with the very far left, although perhaps he thinks that represents a much wider portion of the spectrum. Unless he's getting worked up over brief homages to Cuban literacy rates, this is bizarre. Even the New Left, which is decidedly more socialist than almost anyone labeled a "progressive" in the United States, practically defined itself by its opposition to totalitarian socialism. Teson couldn't even make his case with respect to that decidedly socialist crowd, so he's certainly not going to make it with regard to American progressives.


In the end I haven't been all that impressed with Bleeding Heart Libertarians because I honestly don't even know if they're trying to talk to people like me. I would have thought they would be talking to people of my ilk, but I read a post like this and it's blatantly obvious they have someone completlely different in mind. I'm not sure who that is - it sounds like some washed-up ivory tower leftist or perhaps a newly minted activisty type. Maybe that's the intended audience, in which case I guess they're welcome to have that conversation if they want. But if they think they're characterizing that spectrum from the center-left (me, essentially), to the intelligent and pragmatic progressive left (I dunno - Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman) they have completely missed the mark, to the point that there's really a swiftly diminishing marginal return to reading it. It's like the Cato Unbound essays with Daniel Klein talking about "overlords". I'm not sure who he's intending to talk to, but if he thinks he's talking to people like me he seems to be very, very, very confused.


  1. Der MenschenfreundJune 3, 2011 at 6:53 AM

    I can only comment on the german left (that consists in three different partys: social democrats, green party and socialists). Most young members (in particular of the latter two) wouldn't even adherent to the views of Paul Krugman and would denounce him as "neoliberal" (strong pejorative connotation in german) and as too close to "market radicals".

    I agree with Bryan Caplan:

    The american left seems to be less annoying than the german left but I believe there is a difference between you and the economically uneducated bulk.
    If it is fruitful to criticize them in place of "the academic left" (Krugman, DeLong) is a different question.

  2. I can think of some people. Naomi Klein. Michael Moore.

    Daniel, do you ever consider the idea that you aren't terribly representative of "progressives?" Nor are your reading habits?

    I've met hundreds of American liberals and progressives who were more than willing to defend Cuba and to make excuses about the "excesses" of the regime. Centralized planning by experts is a very common "value" amongst "progressives."

  3. BTW, this will probably be my last day blogging here. I head for San Diego and the PCT tomorrow. :)

  4. Gary -
    As I said - maybe they're trying to be in conversation with more activisty type people (like Moore and Klein). I was under the impression they were trying to address the concerns of more thoughtful progressives, but I said perhaps that's not the intended audience. You should really read my post before raising concerns like this.

    It's interesting that you've met so many people defending Cuba. I live in a pretty liberal area and I went to a pretty liberal school, and I'm not sure I've met anyone who has actually verbalized a defense of the Castro regime. I've met lots of people that support opening trade with Cuba. I support that, and I presume you and BHL would support that too.

    Now - again, if you're talking about the Michael Moores and Noam Chomskys of the world that's a different matter, of course. And I covered that in the post. But those guys aren't representative of progressives. That's precisely why I said it seems like BHL wants to talk to the far left.

  5. re: "That's precisely why I said it seems like BHL wants to talk to the far left"

    In other words - despite your regular desire to always want to disagree with me, you seem to be making the same point that I did.

  6. Daniel,

    I wish I could live in a libertarian neighborhood.

    I've met many. Maybe libertarian blogs are a magnet for such types. There are always the standard tropes about the glories of Cuban education, health care, etc. Indeed, don't you remember when Russ Roberts had the guest on who used Cuba as a positive example of his position? I think it basically boils down to romantic thoughts about a place so as to create an ideal by which to compare the U.S. to. Libertarians just don't have anything like that generally (though sometimes there are historical stand-ins). And yes, trade, travel, etc. should be entirely open with Cuba.

  7. To be completely honest though, I have visited "BHL" once. I read enough libertarian blogs that I don't need to add to my diet.

  8. I will give them this though:

    "Robert Nozick, who most academic philosophers still take to personify libertarianism, similarly held that the term 'distributive justice' was based on a kind of mistake – an assumption that what people have or don’t have is the result of a decision by a central distributor."

    This is exactly right; Nozick is basically treated as if his argument is the only one need read regarding libertarianism.

  9. Daniel, when did YOU start calling yourself a progressive?

    I don't know - if I had to see a person who regularly throws the word "progressive" around to describe himself, I think of David Sirota, whose columns I read purely for humour.

    Sirota's recent columns have dealt with criminalizing obesity, because it harms society, and banning advertisement aimed towards children.

    I won't generalize further beyond this one person. But this one particular self-styled progressive has no sense of proportion, scale, or priority. THESE are the big issues he wants to solve? Were these problems to begin with, or did he decide they were problems?

    Reminds me of the lawyers from Boston Legal, always finding some frivolous issue to consider a new problem in society to be legislated away or dealt with in activist court.

  10. I'm bored by BLH simply because they have nothing interesting to say. A lot of talk about how unique they are and how much they're going to shake things up. Very little in the way of shaking things up. It's like what if Austrian economists Decided to talk about philosophy.

  11. What's interesting about Tesón is that he actually is a fascist. I often say Libertarianism leads to fascism or is fascism, and here is an actual fascist. Tesón was in the Argentina government during the Videla dictatorship. The Videla dictatorship was modeled off of fascism, banned unions just as Nazi Germany did (see Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), and had one of the worst human rights records in Argentina history. Furthermore, its economic policy was led by José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, who deregulated the industries and opened up free-trade. This created massive inequality and poverty and it is only now reversing.

    The people at the Mises Institute can barely run their lives and have to live off the government (and refuse to leave the University after having been told they're worthless), but here you have a dangerous Libertarian who partook in a dictatorship that systematically killed people.

    I actually have a question Tesón: supposedly, in the torture chambers in Argentina, they had pictures of the occult and Nazi art and imagery on the wall. Does he know anything about this, or is that anti-imperialist propaganda? Did he partake in the torture? What did he know about the torture? I'd go over there and ask him myself but I don't want to end up in one of the Libertarian torture chambers. (When the Libertarians come to town, people die.)

    Tesón also says he wants to continue "American exceptionalism." He wrote an article about it at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which much mean the bleeding hearts of their victims). This is seemingly linked to "free-trade" where the US forcibly opens up markets. But, as has been shown in Latin America and the Middle East, this interventionism just makes things worse for the people in those countries, makes them hate "neoliberalism" even more, and, in the case of ME, causes more problems at home. The soft-science of economics also tells us that when dictatorships squander resources for war, the population has to suffer (but there are exceptions as with most theories in economics, such as after WWII when private investment wasn't crowded out as much). So that means more Americans would suffer.

    If he wants to turn American into a tin-pot dictatorship with torture chambers he should go home. He's a very dangerous man: a component Libertarian.


  12. However, you're wrong that the only "thoughtful" progressives are the neoliberal progressives. I would say they are not the best progressives for two reasons: they reduce everything to economics, they are more likely to support interventionism abroad. (I oppose all interventionism, including the interventionism in the Clinton years which led to 500,000 deaths of children, which was "worth it" even though we just took out Saddam by force anyway.)

    The problem with Tesón's analysis is that most liberals are of the neoliberal type, such as Clinton. Clinton was a deregulator and some of his deregulations, which actually began under Carter, are the reasons we are having the problems today. Krugman, who is neoliberal, pointed out that the derivatives markets were very lax. Also, the housing market, from my perspective was deregulated. And these are the sources of the problems for the recession. Clinton was also a humanitarian interventionist. But these "humanitarian interventions" are always highly selective and are more fitting to US interests. Why didn't he do anything about Rwanda or Somalia, in both places a million people died, in the latter case due to a failed anarcho-capitalist society. (The other "Anarcho"-capitalist paradise is Northern Afghanistan according to Mises forums.) His "free-trade" agreements were also corporate managed free-trade agreements -- often internal trade for the corporations.

    And if neoliberalism is so good, how come a million people died in Somalia after they tried to force it open for exploitation? I don't agree with Naomi Klein's analysis that it is Milton Friedman who can be blamed for South America, but how come neoliberal policies, enforced through Operation Condor, didn't work out better for them? How come more people are in poverty today than they were before free-trade, both in Latin America and in Africa, where Reagan cut foreign aid programs that promoted birth control and so on.

    -I am a true progressive. I'm institutional economist of the Ha-Joon Change type. I realize that we must let third world countries get a good educational system and good industry going before they are exploited.

    -I don't support continuing sweat shops and so on that do nothing other than keep the people perpetually in poverty while enriching their leaders to the point where it ends in revolution.

    -I'm not a racist like Bryan Caplan or Walter Block.

    -I'm not a revisionist historian like at Mises, where they're now claiming FDR set the stage for third world interventions (the US took land from Mexico, killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, intervened in Nicaragua under Coolidge, and dozens of Latin American interventions before FDR, etc.).

    -I'm not a global warming denier like so many economists.



  13. Bizzare, SB.

    Reagan cut foreign aid programs for birth control -> Increased poverty in Africa?

    Bizzare, truly bizzare.

    A good deal of people in Ghana, Cote D'Ivoire, South Africa, Uganda, Sudan, Zambia,.etc have the strong sense of perception to understand and admit that their problems are uniquely homegrown and due to local issues - a general lack of honesty among too many people, tribal/ethnic conflicts and other needless disparities, revolutionary tendencies,.etc. A good deal of educated Africans (in newspaper columns) appeal to their fellow countrymen to understand that blaming foreigners is a way of avoiding responsibility.

    What a retrogression it is in clear, analytical thinking, that non-African foreigners encourage believing the latter by blaming themselves for Africa's problems. Not to mention how patronizing it is to suggest that only foreigners can be responsible for Africa's problems, and thus only foreigners can solve Africa's problems.

  14. It isn't bizarre. And nobody in Sudan has said that the history of colonialism or the actions of the West have no effect on the people in Sudan, or else you would have quoted them. Obviously, the actions of the West have had in an impact both in terms of foreign aid and in terms of environmental degradation.

    Reagan did systematically dismantle programs that provided birth control to the poor. This was true both in the US, where he stopped Federal Programs, and internationally. Of all the things Reagan did, this probably hurt the poor more than everything else. In America we constantly see starving African children on "Save the Children," "Feed the Children," etc. Everything we see that we should be reminded of Ronald Reagan and the economics profession, which was telling us we need to cut back on foreign aid and medicines for diseases that can be treated for a couple of cents on the dollar because it interferes with "free-trade." (This same thing happened during the Irish famine in which there was plenty of food but British economists recommended against aid because it interfered with free-trade.)

    Population growth causes people to adopt intensified agriculture production, and then to expand unsustainable farming practices (deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, effects on native species, human population growth, etc.) from prime lands to marginal lands. The consequences are food shortages, starvations, wars among people fighting for resources, etc.


  15. We have seen these types of collapses in Somalia and Rwanda. According to Jared Diamond, ecocide is now one of today's most pressing issues:

    "The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight [i.e. deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), waster management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact on people], plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity. Most of these 12 threats, it is claimed, will become globally critical within the next few decades: either we solve the problems by then, or the problems will undermine not just Somalia but also First World socieities. Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be "just" a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources. If this reasoning is correct, then our efforts today will determine the state of the world win which the current generation of children and young adult lives out their middle and late years." (Jared Diamond, Collapse, page 7.)

    And it concerns me because my actions have an effect on theirs, and vice versa:

    "But there are also differences between the modern world and its problems, and those past societies and their problems. We shouldn't be so naïve as to think that the study of the past will yield simple solutions, directly transferable to our societies today.... We differ from past societies in some respects that put us at greater risk than them: mentioned in that connection are, again, our potent technology (i.e., its unintended destructive effects), globalization (such that now a collapse even in remote Somalia affects the U.S. and Europe), the dependence of millions (and, soon, billions) of us on modern medicine for our survival, and our much larger human population. Perhaps we can still learn from the past, but only if we think carefully about its lessons."

    Contrary to Bryan Caplan's rhetoric, the cartoons and squiggly lines in the neoclassical economics' textbooks aren't going to solve all our problems. In fact, the time spent by scientists correcting Scott Summer's ignorant nonsense about string theory and mathematical modeling, and the other guy who made misstatements about biology, could have been better spent educating people about climate change and science. It is going to take empirical evidence and science.


  16. LOL. SB you must be a troll.

    If you're so intelligent and correct, and feel like you can discredit the work of Bryan Caplan by throwing his name into one of your posts, twice, why not e-mail him or start posting on econlog?

    Or maybe SB does work in a field that has zero-real-world practicality and he would rather speak poorly against those who make real, beneficial changes?

  17. Is that you Bryan? And I mentioned his name in two separate posts. Nice to see Bryan Caplan's defenders are capable of easily discerning basic information.

    I don't think Bryan Caplan is a bad man or anything. In fact, I'd say right now that Caplan and Marginal Revolution are good Libertarian blogs to read (I used to like Paul Roberts until I found out he was a truther and has ties to white supremicist organizations).

    However, Bryan Caplan does believe in "racial science." He writes about it openly on his blog and his follows are from vdare, who are also openly pro-racist, pro-pseudoscientific IQ studies. But he lies when he says it's "scientific" and that "Libertarians" are "scientists" (or pro-science) because they believe in racial theory. There's a chart by Arthur Strahler and a zone that shows the probability of scientific theory. So quantum mechanics has 10,000:1 in favor, evolution, evolution, 1000:1, etc. Racial science is in the "frontier" or fringe view, about 100:1 against, as does big foot and Lochness etc.. For every intellectual domain physical, (i.e., science and fact based disciplines), social (politics), abstract (philosophy, theology, mathematics, probably economics as well), there is a crank intellectual domain: for physical (pseudoscience), social (political cults like mises, cult anthropology racism), and abstract (religious dogmatism, anti-science, crank mathematics). The fact is, that racial theory is more crank science than real science, and is recognized as such by most psychologists and anthropologists. And he also did indeed say if we just follow supply & demand our problems will be solved, in so many words. I don't think I'm misrepresenting him here. What is it a crime to criticize him on the internet or something?

    As for my mention of the other economists, how much you want to bet me I could find a mathematician in about 5 seconds who would think it's ridiculous to say that something is a science because it can be "modeled." Absolutely ridiculous. Nobody should even take Scott Summer seriously; he says stuff that you could prove wrong with a high school education. Mankiw or whatever his name is said that economics provides us with insights into the universe and that economists are scientists because their "humble."

    Instead of "scientists" these guys look a bunch of damn fools to me. They're so vague anything (like intelligent design or the search for space aliens) could be considered science. They're abusing science to support ideology, which can happen in any intellectual domain.

    In fact this is actually dangerous: Lysenkoism, which was applying economics to agriculture, resulted in the deaths of 20 million people in the Soviet Union. They used an absolute method of evolution to support Marxism. I don't want to see that happen again.


  18. "Or maybe SB does work in a field that has zero-real-world practicality and he would rather speak poorly against those who make real, beneficial changes? "

    You want to give me an example of where Bryan Caplan's research has had a profound impact on the real world big guy?

    You're probably right he'd win in a debate about racial theory, but I haven't had enough time to study this Libertarian claim. I have my hands full with other Libertarian claims, but you can easily find articles refuting the bell curve (try googling bell-curve and pseudoscience for a start). It's not something I'm really interested in debating anyway.

    "As for social rewards, it is alleged that in our society remuneration correlates in part with IQ. But insofar as that is true, it is simply a social malady to be overcome much as slavery had to be eliminated at an earlier stage of human history. It is sometimes argued that constructive and creative work will cease unless it leads to material reward, so that all of society gains when the talented receive special rewards. For the mass of the population, then, the message is: "You're better off if you're poor." One can see why this doctrine would appeal to the privileged, but it is difficult to believe that it could be put forth seriously by anyone who has had experience with creative work or workers in the arts, the sciences, crafts, or whatever. The standard arguments for "meritocracy" have no basis in fact or logic, to my knowledge; they rest on a priori beliefs, which, furthermore, do not seem particularly plausible. I have discussed the matter elsewhere and will not pursue it here.

    "Consider finally the question of race and intellectual endowments. Notice again that in a decent society there would be no social consequences to any discovery that might be made about this question. Individuals are what they are; it is only on racist assumptions that they are to be regarded as an instance of their race category, so that social consequences ensue from the discovery that the mean for a certain racial category with respect to some capacity is such and such. Eliminating racist assumptions, the facts have no social consequences whatever they may be, and are therefore not worth knowing, from this point of view at least. If there is any purpose to investigation of the relation between race and some capacity, it must derive from the scientific significance of the question. It is difficult to be precise about questions of scientific merit. Roughly, an inquiry has scientific merit if its results might bear on some general principles of science. One doesn't conduct inquiries into the density of blades of grass on various lawns or innumerable other trivial and pointless questions. But inquiry into such questions as race and IQ appears to be of virtually no scientific interest. Conceivably, there might be some interest in correlations between partially heritable traits, but if someone were interested in this question, he would surely not select such characteristics as race and IQ, each an obscure amalgam of complex properties. Rather, he would ask whether there is a correlation between measurable and significant traits, say, eye color and length of the big toe. It is difficult to see how the study of race and IQ, for example, can be justified on any scientific grounds."
    (Chomsky Reader, p.p. 199-200. Essay probably online somewhere.) I agree. Group differences in traits shouldn't affect how we treat individual people.


  19. Daniel:
    I'm glad that you think open markets help the poor. I assume, therefore, that you support free trade, meaningful domestic deregulation, and so forth. That makes you a classic liberal. As to my observation about historical progressive support of left-authoritarian regimes, the record is well-known and I'll be happy to give you sources.
    Fernando Teson

  20. "Before entering academia, Professor Tesón was a career diplomat for the Argentina Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires for four years. He resigned from the Argentine foreign service in 1981 to protest against the human rights abuses of the Argentine government and serves as Permanent Visiting Professor, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina."

  21. The fact is that the majority of the torture took place under the military dictatorship of Videla from 1976 to 1981, which included concentration camps and so on. The survivors of the torture chambers testified that they saw pictures of Nazi swastikas on the walls on and so on. During the time the US was sponsoring the National Guard in Nicaragua and the Carter administration was flying Guard commanders out of the country in airplanes marked with Red Cross symbols (a war crime). Argentina was used as a proxy at that time, being as they were under the rule of neo-Nazi generals, which Tesón was obviously a part of.

    "One of those who was disappeared and lived to tell her story is Patricia Isasa. She was only sixteen in 1976 when she was kidnapped by police and soldiers, tortured and held prisoner without trial for two and a half years. One of Patricia’s torturers was Domingo Marcelini. He is a graduate of the SOA."

    Tesón only resigned when the military junta and dictators, and their economic advisers, were being prosecuted for crimes against humanity.



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