I am not a complete Libertarian, though I have a lot of sympathy for those that are. I think it is interesting that some Libertarians are trying to claim the name "Liberal" for their ideology, and I have sometimes observed that Libertarianism and Liberalism have a fair deal in common.
I think where the two positions differ most fundamentally is over the role of the state. Liberalism does not automatically regard the state as a negative force. There are some limited areas, generally concerned with natural monopolies where Liberals believe that the state is an unavoidable presence and even a positive force, although we remain ideologically totally opposed to the presence of the public sector in wide areas.
Yet Libertarians are ideologically "minarchist" to a level that Liberals consider impractical even were it totally desirable. The position of most Libertarians is, to a Liberal eye, simply too extreme to be practical. To that end, I have sometimes thought of the Liberal Democrats as the political wing of the anti-authoritarian ideological spectrum.
Apart from Europe, which I have addressed in other essays, the place where Libertarians tend to attack the position of the Liberal Democrats most intensely is over the ban on smoking in public places. This, they argue, demonstrates that Liberal Democrats are au fond statist authoritarians. It is an attack that occasionally I have felt uncomfortable about. Liberal Democrats are quite fiercely against State interference in personal behaviour. For example, we oppose ID cards precisely because we believe that they infringe the principle that the state accounts to its citizens, and not the other way round. How then could the Liberal Democrats support such an infringement of personal liberty?
The answer lies in the problem of passive smoking.
The basic Liberal principle is best articulated by John Stuart Mill:
"The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign"
The problem about smoking is that even though the massive body of science says that it is a massive risk factor for poor health of all sorts of kinds, it is not illegal. Neither should it be illegal, it is a personal choice, and indeed the Liberal Democrats have often suggested that many other substances which currently are prohibited would be better legalised or at least decriminalised in order to better deal with the social problems they bring in their wake- and the Police have generally agreed. So the Lib Dems do not want to ban smoking. As far as we are concerned, an individual has every right to go to the devil in their own way- it is, quite literally your funeral, but no concern of ours.
The problem is that there is an overwhelming body of evidence that smoking is also very dangerous, to people who do not smoke. Second-hand smoke creates similar health problems for people who do not smoke as for people who do, and in public places non-smokers were being forced to face threats to their health that were substantial. Roy Castle, a non-Smoker who nevertheless died of a cancer usually associated with smoking, put down his illness to being forced to passive smoke in bars where he performed on the trumpet in his early career.
So the fact is that smokers, perfectly free to risk their own health, were also putting a risk the health of others by smoking in public enclosed places. After careful consideration the advice of health care professionals was that smoking in enclosed public places was indeed very dangerous to others.
It is for that reason, that after much discussion, Liberal Democrats - even the smokers- generally supported the public smoking ban. It was nevertheless a close debate, but as more and more countries, from the United States, Ireland and across the EU, adopted the same measures it became clear that there truly is a general global scientific and political consensus on this issue.
No mainstream political party in the UK now supports the repeal of the public smoking ban.