Milton Friedman’s critique of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”

25 12 2012

Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, Friday, January 20, 1961. (see further info on JFK’s inaugural address here: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8032 )

President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Americans of all political and personal persuasions need to sincerely appreciate the work and service and sacrifice of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.  That said, in the introduction on pages 1-2 to “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962), Economist Milton Friedman gave his thoughts and constructive critique on how a free man in a free society should respond to former President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote in his 1961 inaugural address.

No disrespect is meant here regarding the statements of President Kennedy or his contributions to our country. But rather the ideas and thoughts of Milton Friedman regarding this famous statement are particularly relevant to the role of the individual citizen in relation to the government in the United States today (emphasis in terms of bold, underlined, or italicized text are mine)

   “In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’  It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not its content.  Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.”

“The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron – the citizen, the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny.  The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or dietythe citizen, the servant or votary.” 

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not over and above them. He is proud of the common heritage and loyal to common traditions, but regards government as a means, an instrumentality – neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served.  He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve.  He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather “What can I and my compatriots do through government” to help us achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?” 

And he will accompany this question with another: “How can we keep the government we create from becoming a ‘Frankenstein’ that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?“”

“Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power.  Government is necessary to preserve our freedom – it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp.”

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Source: Africanliberty.org

President Kennedy’s words were no doubt intended to call, inspire, and challenge we as Americans to more selfless service to our fellow citizens – and he and his legacy are to be commended for them.  However, here Milton Friedman provided a wary warning about the leeway that Kennedy’s words of challenge and inspiration allow for the misuse of concentrated government power in inhibiting and limiting the economic and political freedoms of free people in free societies – such as is the United States.

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