Cordial and Sanguine, Part 21: War Among the Bleeding Hearts

a stately pleasure dome

Greetings from Las Vegas! Our two panels went well, and I’ve been having a great time hanging out with my Molinari/C4SS/ALL comrades. This is the first Vegas conference where I’ve actually stayed at the conference hotel (I got a special deal, half the conference rate) rather than my usual venue, three miles up the strip at the Mohamed Atta EconoLodge; that’s certainly an improvement.

The latest Cato Unbound symposium, on the topic “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism,” features a lead essay by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi titled “A Bleeding-Heart History of Libertarianism.” Replies by David Friedman, Alexander McCobin, and your humble correspondent will follow later in the week.

Here’s the executive summary of Matt’s and John’s thesis and my reply:

  • They say that earlier classical liberals were friendlier to social justice, more concerned with consequences, and less attached to absolutist property rights than contemporary libertarians, and that we need to go back to the gude auld way.

  • I say that this difference is overstated, and that in any case we can embrace social justice, concern for consequences, and absolutist property rights simultaneously, so yay.

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8 Responses to Cordial and Sanguine, Part 21: War Among the Bleeding Hearts

  1. Michael April 3, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    I see they use that old quote-mine of Herbert Spencer that you’ve refuted multiple times:

    If classical liberal luminaries such as Locke and Smith defended market society by referring to the material benefits of this system to the poor, why does this tradition still get such a bad rap for neglecting the less fortunate? If we are looking for someone to blame, there is probably no easier target than Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). In colorful, attention-grabbing language, Spencer sometimes expressed contempt for the dissolute and dishonest elements within the lower socioeconomic classes, elements for whose lot there could be only one remedy. “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”[12]

    I hope you’ll take them to task for it in your response, although they qualify this with their next paragraph. Even so, this is very annoying.

    • Roderick April 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Oh, I definitely grump about the Spencer passage.

  2. Kevin Carson April 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I think you’d get a much fairer description of the difference between classical liberalism and mainstream modern libertarianism if you substituted “individual, allodial, fee simple” for “absolute.”

    • Rad Geek April 9, 2012 at 10:04 am #


      I’m a bit confused about what distinction you’re trying to track here. I get the overwhelming stress on individual title, to the exclusion of common title, etc. (Although I’m less sure that that’s a feature that distinctive of mainstream modern libertarians as opposed to classical liberals…) But what do you mean by “allodial, fee simple” property? In real estate, isn’t allodial ownership normally contrasted against fee simple ownership, not a condition that can be conjoined with it? (*) What kind of property rights claims is it that you’re taking to be distinctive here of mainstream modern libertarianism?

      (* Such that allodia are often said to be available only to governments and sometimes their jurisdictionally autonomous peers, e.g. the premodern Catholic Church; whereas fee simple is held as a fief from the sovereign and so is supposedly subject to conditions such as taxation, eminent domain, etc.)

      • Kevin Carson April 9, 2012 at 10:32 am #

        Charles: As badly as I’m probably stating it, I’m simply trying to describe the sort of property rights regime imposed by (say) the Settlement of Bengal and the Stolypin “Reforms.” By fee-simple, I mean a system in which a plot of land is an individually owned and severable commodity that can be disposed of as such, without any residual rights of ownership by the village or community.

        • Kevin Carson April 9, 2012 at 10:38 am #

          I meant to add, as James Scott described being imposed on earlier common or open field regimes in order to render property systems legible.

        • Rad Geek April 10, 2012 at 2:00 am #

          OK, fair enough, and thanks. I figured that’s about what you meant but wasn’t sure if there was more detail being packed in. My understanding is that real property that law would treat as having those features could in principle be either allodial or fee simple, depending on the breaks (allodial titles are supposed to give more or less absolute discretion to the holder; fee simple is different from non-simple kinds of fiefs in that it is among other things completely alienable and divisible). In practice it is virtually always a fee simple and not an allodial title, because governments usually insist that they, and only they, have allodial title over all the land within their borders.

          Of course, all this mumbo-jumbo I guess also emphasizes another important aspect in addition to the obsessive overemphasis on sole, alienable and divisible ownership — all that goes along with a corresponding obsessive overemphasis on highly formalized and legally complex forms of “title,” rather than on messier, fuzzier, more ad-hoc or more conventionally-bounded forms of possession which are mediated more through constantly-negotiated social relationships rather than through charters, contracts or other legal paperwork. States obsessed with legibility love this kind of stuff, perhaps for obvious reasons (their love of it is part of what makes up their obsession with legibility).

          Of course these two overemphases, on the most simplistic and atomized forms of ownership claims, and on a legalistic or formalistic picture of title, may have something to do with each other — traditional common ownership may just be necessarily messier and harder to wrap up in precise paper titling than sole ownership is. (To the point that the main form of non-severable shared ownership on offer — corporate ownership — now involves the legal fiction of an invented person, just so you can have some one thing to sit in as the sole owner.) But while they may be related, they need not be the same — legalistic title and arbitrary procedural requirements have certainly been used to fence people off of their commons, but they’ve just as much been used to throw squatters off their honestly-homesteaded freeholds, etc. etc.


  1. Cordial and Sanguine, Part 22: War Among the Bleeding Hearts Continued - April 4, 2012

    […] from Seattle! My entry in the aforementioned Cato Unbound symposium is now up. It’s titled “In Praise of Bleeding Heart […]

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