Bleeding-heart libertarianism is a species of libertarianism that focuses on the compatibility of support for civil liberties and free markets on the one hand, and a concern for social justice and the well-being of the worst-off on the other. Adherents of bleeding-heart libertarianism broadly hold that an agenda focused upon individual liberty will be of most benefit to the economically weak and socially disadvantaged.[1]


Early usageEdit

The first recorded use of the term "bleeding-heart libertarian" seems to have been in an essay by Roderick Long.[2] It was subsequently used in a blog post by Stefan Sharkansky,[3] and later picked up and elaborated on by Arnold Kling in an article for TCS Daily.[4] Since then, the term has been used sporadically by a number of libertarian writers including Anthony Gregory[5] and Bryan Caplan.[6]

Creation of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blogEdit

In March 2011, a group of academic philosophers, political theorists, and economists, created the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.[7] Regular contributors to the blog include Andrew J. Cohen, Daniel Shapiro, Fernando Tesón, Gary Chartier, James Taylor, Jason Brennan, Jessica Flanigan, Kevin Vallier, Matt Zwolinski, Roderick Long, Jacob T. Levy, and Steven Horwitz.

Prominent bleeding-heart libertariansEdit

Canadian musician and author Neil Peart has identified himself as a bleeding-heart libertarian.[8] 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, has also been identified as a bleeding heart libertarian, one time even posing for a photo in a bleeding heart libertarian t-shirt.[9]

Varieties of Bleeding Heart LibertarianismEdit

The term "bleeding heart libertarian" does not refer to a single comprehensive philosophical position. Some bleeding heart libertarians are consequentialists, others are natural rights theorists. Some are anarchists, some are minarchists, and some are classical liberals who allow for the state provision of public goods and possibly some form of social safety net. What they all have in common is the belief that "addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important."[10]

Matt Zwolinski has identified three main varieties of bleeding heart libertarian: Contingent BHLs, Anarchist Left-BHLs, and Strong BHLs.[11]

Weak/Contingent BHLsEdit

Contingent BHLs are essentially standard libertarians who happen to believe that libertarian institutions will be especially good for the poor, and that this is a good thing. For this group, libertarianism is justified on standard natural rights or consequentialist grounds. That libertarian institutions allegedly help the poor is merely a contingent fact that plays no justificatory role. Fernando Teson is the clearest example of this sort of BHL.

Anarchist-Left BHLsEdit

Anarchist Left-BHLs believe that all states are morally impermissible, and should be abolished. Moreover, they believe that the abolition of the state would be good for the poor and marginalized. This group draws on the writings of figures like Benjamin Tucker and Thomas Hodgskin. Current notable examples include Gary Chartier and Roderick Long.

Strong BHLsEdit

Strong BHLs believe that the fact that libertarian institutions would help the poor is not merely a contingent fact. It is an essential part of the justification of those institutions. Strong BHLs believe that libertarianism is justified insofar and to the extent that such institutions are compatible with the requirements of social justice. The idea of social justice plays not only a justificatory role for strong BHLs, but also a revisionary one.[12] Insofar as certain elements of standard libertarianism are found to be incompatible with the requirements of social justice, Strong BHLs hold that those elements should be abandoned. Thus some Strong BHLs argue that the state might be justified in providing a universal basic income.[13] Matt Zwolinski, Jason Brennan, and Kevin Vallier are Strong BHLs.


Many libertarians have criticized bleeding-heart libertarians for not really believing in a free market due to the interference on the economy through taxation as a way to finance welfare programs (libertarians believe in a voluntary approach to the caring of the poor like private charity and mutual aid society institutions), the ill-defined nature of social justice, too much reverence for the ideas of John Rawls, and not acknowledging the importance of merit and desert. Critics of bleeding-heart libertarianism include Bryan Caplan,[14][15][16] David D. Friedman,[17] and Todd Seavey.[18]


  1. "About Us". Bleeding-Heart Libertarians.
  2. Long, Roderick (1996). "Beyond the Boss". Retrieved 2012-09-20.
  3. Sharkansky, Stefan (2002-06-01). "My Blog and Welcome to It". Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  4. Kling, Arnold (2003-09-29). "Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism". Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  5. Gregory, Anthony. "Don't Privatize Plunder".
  6. Caplan, Bryan. "Who's More Irresponsible?". EconLog.
  7. Zwolinski, Matt. "Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism". Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.
  8. NEWS, WEATHER, and SPORTS July, 2011 (accessed 29 January 2012)
  9. Gary Johnson - Bleeding Heart Libertarian 8/30/2012 (accessed 9/20/2012)
  10. About Us (accessed 10/17/12)
  11. What is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Part 1: Three Types of BHL (accessed 10/17/12)
  12. What is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Part 2: Strong BHL (accessed 10/17/12)
  13. BHLs and UBIs (accessed 10/17/12)
  14. Caplan, Bryan (2005-03-25). "Let Them Get Roommates". EconLog.
  15. Caplan, Bryan (2011-03-09). "Callous Libertarians: Missing, or Just Unfairly Maligned?". EconLog.
  16. Caplan, Bryan (2012-04-26). "Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism Evil?". EconLog.
  17. Henderson, David. "David Friedman on Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism". EconLog.
  18. Seavey, Todd (2012-04-20). "Tricia Rose, Social Justice, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Beastie Boys, and Black Crowes".

External linksEdit

  • Bleeding Heart Libertarians - The Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog
  • [1] - Matt Zwolinski discusses Bleeding Heart Libertarianism in an interview with Kosmos Online
  • [2] - Matt Zwolinski discusses Bleeding Heart Libertarianism with Reason TV
  • [3] - Anarchist Left-Lib Bleeding Heart Libertarian Gary Chartier discusses "Markets, Not Capitalism"
  • [4] - BHL John Tomasi on whether free markets and social justice can co-exist
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