The term "left-libertarian" has gotten a good deal of attention in recent months, at least among libertarians, in part due to an online Cato Unbound Symposium and in part due to the efforts of a number of bloggers who consider themselves left-libertarians and a few others who consider themselves critics of left-libertarianism.
One source of potential confusion in these exchanges is that "left-libertarian" is used to label three quite different clusters of positions. In its oldest sense a left libertarian is a left wing anarchist, typically anarcho-communist or anarcho-syndicalist; "libertarian" is still sometimes used that way in Europe, although less often in the U.S.
But that is not how the term is being used in the current discussion. A more recent and more relevant use is to describe positions that differ from conventional libertarianism mainly in supporting and justifying policies that most libertarians would reject as income redistribution. The best known is geolibertarianism, based on the ideas of Henry George, a 19th century economist. Its central tenet is that since no individual has a just claim to the income from the site value of land, land being an unproduced resource, government ought to support itself by taxing all and only that income. Two recent books, The Origins of Left-Libertarianism and Left-Libertarianism and its Critics, both edited by Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner, discuss that and other positions along somewhat similar lines.
I find that form of left-libertarianism interesting in large part because it grows out of, and tries to solve, the problem of initial appropriation. It is very useful for land to be treated as private property. But libertarian philosophy mostly bases its justification of ownership on creation—and land, with rare exceptions, is not created by humans. Locke famously tried to solve the problem by arguing that humans acquire ownership over land by mixing their labor with it, but his solution raises a number of problems. Readers who share my interest in the issue may want to look at an old article of mine in which I offered some possible, if not entirely satisfactory, solutions.
Left-libertarianism in that sense is not the version that has been getting attention of late, although they are related. Current discussions mostly deal with what is sometimes described as Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, BHL for short. It was that that was the subject of the Cato symposium.
My problem with BHL is that I have been unable to get its supporters to tell me what it is. Readers who wish to check that claim for themselves may want to look at the symposium, especially at the lead essay by Zwolinski and Tomasi, my response, and as much more of the conversation as they find of interest.
Supporters of BHL, or at least Zwolinski and Tomasi, want to add "social justice" to the mix of ideas that make up libertarianism, but they are reluctant to explain what that means. My own conclusion long ago was that social justice means "views of justice that appeal to people on the left," or, alternatively, "that view of justice which implies that the first question to ask about any proposal at all is 'how does it affect the poor.'"
Part of the BHL position is the rejection of the hard line rights version of libertarianism—the version which, taken seriously, implies that if I fall out of the window of my tenth floor apartment and manage to catch hold of the flagpole projecting out of the window of the apartment immediately below, I am morally obliged to let go and fall to my death if the owner of that apartment refuses me permission to trespass on his property. I reject that version too, as did the late Bill Bradford of Liberty Magazine, who is responsible for the flagpole example. But that rejection is well within the range of libertarianism conventionally defined, so cannot be what distinguishes Bleeding Heart Libertarians from the rest of us.
What about the poor? Bleeding Heart Libertarians consider concern for the poor as one of their defining characteristics but are, at least in my experience, unwilling or unable to say exactly how far that concern goes or what is its basis. The pure Rawlsian position—they seem to have some positive things to say about Rawls—gives the welfare of the poorest infinite weighting; no benefit to the not-poor, however large, can outweigh any cost to the poorest, however small. The BHL position appears to prudently stop short of that extreme. It is unclear whether it goes further than the claim that a libertarian society would be good for, among others, the poor, a view shared by most libertarians. The further view that the fact that a libertarian society is good for the poor is an important reason to support it, while less universal, is at least shared by many other libertarians. I am left with the puzzle of just what it is that they believe that most of the rest of us don't.
My conclusion so far is that Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is simply a version of libertarianism whose presentation and contents are designed, so far as possible, to appeal to people on the left, especially academics on the left. Possibly that is unfair—but, as I believe readers can see by browsing the archive of the symposium, I did try without success to get proponents to provide me with a better definition.
In about a week, I will be spending several days at a conference at least one of whose participants regards himself as a left-libertarian and, I think, a bleeding heart libertarian; he will have an opportunity to correct any errors in my view of the matter.