The Speak Easy, a series of discussion events with which we are collaborating with the Oxford University Liberal Democrats and Compass Oxford (a mostly Labour party group) has attracted the attention of NextLeft. Stuart White hopes that these sort of combinations could represent a revival of liberalism as a political force, so long fractured by a left-right divide that tends to put civil liberties activists in different political parties and unable to combine to protect individual rights.
These sessions look promising and some interesting points have already emerged. The last session began with a discussion of the recent ban on extreme pornography, but moved onto the related topic of intellectual property rights and how to deal with filesharing. On this point, libertarians (usually seen as 'pro-business') and liberal democrats (often sceptical of giving business the full value of their product) seemed to switch sides! Many libertarians, especially those following Hayek's scepticism of using property rights in any other way than to co-ordinate scarce resources, reject intellectual property law in principle. Once a piece of music, or text, or film has been created and released into the wild, no intervention is justified in order to maintain the rights of a copyright owner.
The LibDems, by contrast, while eager to reform the existing system of intellectual property, consider products like music to be public goods (non-rivalrous and non-excludable, for which, of course, they are right) and in need of special protection. Otherwise there would be a lack of quality music produced. This sounded a bit implausible to my ears (can you imagine a world where music can be played, copied, and transfered freely with no government intervention that wasn't positively filled with music?). But the additional point was that musicians deserve to have some ownership over their products and that they would be deprived of existing income streams if the whole edifice of intellectual property were torn down. For libertarians, however, what one deserves has comparatively little to do with income. The important thing is that no one is forcing you to create music, not that you can derive some specific amount of value from the creation if it proves to be popular. If some people are tempted not to create music in the absence of intellectual property, then that might be an indicator that it is a government distortion in the market right now which is directing too much effort towards music creation.
This illustrates that there are no simple stereotypes of libertarian or liberal policies. Indeed there is probably more disagreement in some areas within these doctrines than between them. On the other hand, I think there is something perhaps more distinctive about some of the methodology underlying the policy arguments. Liberals tend to place extra emphasis on the rational justification for particular policies, holding them up against substantive values of fairness, liberty and equality. They also have a confidence that state action can play a major role in respecting these fundamental human interests. Libertarians, by contrast, in sharing one or two ideas with conservatives, tend to emphasise the likely unintended consequences of explicit rational reform by planners, favouring instead a basic set of rules that allow individuals and communities to pursue their own interests without bumping into each other and suffering too many disputes.
So for example, although Karl Popper was, in practice, a liberal social democrat, he makes a frequent appearance in libertarian discussions because of his emphasis on epistemic fallibilism as the grounds for an open society. He rejected broad social reforms in favour of piecemeal experimentation, albeit via democratic means.
Everyone but the anarchist lies somewhere on a spectrum, respecting a role for explicit laws of a political regime in some ways, while rejecting them in others. For all liberals, the goal is to find a way of respecting the individual life of every human being.
Finally, there is the difference of historical perspective. Liberals see government policy progressing slowly to make the social world safe for individuals. They still see many left at the hands of forces (market or otherwise) beyond their control, preventing them from planning their own lives peacably. Libertarians, by contrast, will tend to look at all the interventions enacted by the state, now in existence for so long that laissez-faire is almost unimagineable in entire spheres of life, and see them as responsible for many of the continuing problems that plague individuals; problems that if left alone would have been resolved voluntarily.
The most recent divergence on the historical view is, of course, the financial crisis. Liberals seem to see the crisis as an indictment of a 'free market' system, pointing to the de-regulations that happened a few years before the meltdown. By contrast, libertarians will tend to point to the underlying structure of our economic system, the fact that we have a fiat currency system with national interest rates decided by central banks, and the whole thing resting on the actions of a small group of people running the Federal Reserve in the US. As this tremendous video that has been doing the rounds on the econ blogs this last week suggests, we're likely to be going back and forth on these points for a while yet: