Election 2012

Clint Eastwood's 'Leave Everybody Alone' Definition of Libertarianism

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Appearing on Ellen this week, Clint Eastwood twice drew applause with a succinct definition of libertarianism: "Leave everybody alone." During the interview (video below), he joked about his odd, Newhartesque routine at the Republican National Convention, saying, "The Democrats who were watching thought I was going senile, and the Republicans knew I was." But as in that speech, Eastwood did not seem enthusiastic about the GOP:

Ellen DeGeneres: You have called yourself a libertarian. Is that right? 

Clint Eastwood: Well, libertarian values, that's where Republicans used to be, when they were saving money and everything. 

DeGeneres: Explain libertarian to people. 

Eastwood: Libertarian means you're socially liberal—leave everybody alone—but you believe in fiscal responsibility, and you believe in government staying out of your life. [Applause.] I thought so too, and I still believe in that. When I was 21 years old and started voting, I sort of became Republican because that's the way they were thinking…In the last few years, both sides have just spent like drunken sailors. Not to insult the Navy in  any way…

DeGeneres: Your stance on gay marriage is that you don't have any problem with that.

Eastwood: This is part of the libertarian idea: Leave everybody alone. Leave everybody alone. [Applause.] 

Eastwood turned 21 (the voting age at the time) in 1951. While it would be quite a stretch to describe the Republican Party's 1952 platform as libertarian, it did feature considerable criticism of overbearing government, including some points that Republicans nowadays rarely make, even when criticizing Democrats:

We charge that [the Roosevelt and Truman administrations] have arrogantly deprived our citizens of precious liberties by seizing powers never granted.

We charge that they work unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism….

We charge that they have violated our liberties by turning loose upon the country a swarm of arrogant bureaucrats and their agents who meddle intolerably in the lives and occupations of our citizens….

We charge that they have plunged us into war in Korea without the consent of our citizens through their authorized representatives in the Congress…

We denounce the Administration's use of tax money and a multitude of Federal agencies to put agriculture under partisan political dictation and to make the farmer dependent upon government….

The tradition of popular education, tax-supported and free to all, is strong with our people. The responsibility for sustaining this system of popular education has always rested upon the local communities and the States. We subscribe fully to this principle.

Notably absent: any mention of God (unless you count the Soviet Union's "godless terrorism") or social issues (unless you count the GOP's endorsement of "a Constitutional Amendment providing equal rights for men and women"). Dwight D. Eisenhower, for whom Eastwood presumably voted, had a pretty good fiscal record (including three balanced budgets), especially when compared with those of subsequent Republican presidents. Although he took office as an ardent cold warrior, he cut defense spending after the Korean War and left office warning the nation about the power of the "military-indusrial complex"—not the sort of concern you are apt to hear from today's Republicans, most of whom seem to believe that more military spending is always better while less always poses an intolerable threat to national security.

In short, there are reasons why the Republican Party might have looked more libertarian to Eastwood in the 1950s than it does today, although you also have to allow for the gradual realization that the GOP chronically fails to practice the small-government principles it preaches. As for the Ellen audience's warm response to Eastwood's thumbnail sketch of libertarianism, it is nice to hear, but I suspect the consensus would fall apart once we got into the details of what fiscal responsibility and leaving people alone require in practice. 

[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the tip.]