All Commentary
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Don’t Ask What You Can Do for Your Country

Ask what we can do without coercion.

The 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth has triggered multiple Camelot retrospectives. They seldom fail to credit him with inspiring rhetoric. And exhibit A is JFK’s most famous quote, from his inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” However, while many find it inspirational, it has been put to more ominous use.

Kennedy’s speech and quote were inspired by a Kahlil Gibran article whose Arabic title translates as “The New Frontier.” It said “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.” But Kennedy dramatically altered its meaning.

Government Exists for Our Benefit

Clearly, politicians who benefit by abusing their positions are parasites. In America, with Washington supposedly limited by the Constitution to few, enumerated powers solely to advance the general welfare, such abuses are even more blatant. The same holds for everyone seeking special government treatment.

However, extending “ask what you can do for your country” from politicians and special treatment seekers to citizens turns America’s foundation on its head. Asking citizens to sacrifice for the country, while government acts as a misled proxy for society, implies we were made for government’s benefit, rather than it for ours.

Not even policies that unite millions advance our shared interests when the costs are forced onto others. As Albert Jay Nock put it, “Underlying…faith in ‘political action’…is the assumption that the interest of the State and the interest of society are, at least theoretically, identical; whereas in theory they are directly opposed.”

That is how “ask what you can do for your country” has been employed to create innumerable government policies, helping some by imposing involuntary burdens on others, sacrificing America’s broad interests to political causes and favorites.

Kennedy was also addressing “what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Rather than advancing freedom we sacrifice people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness when we finance the unjustifiable policies that dominate politics.

Inspirational rhetoric can unite people toward a common goal. However, despite politicians’ unity rhetoric, we do not share most specific goals, which reflect widely different preferences, abilities, and circumstances. That is why our federal government was explicitly limited to the few goals we do share, such as defense against aggression and invasions of our common, inalienable rights. Not even policies that unite millions advance our shared interests when the costs are forced onto others.

Coercion Punishes Advancement

Kennedy’s rhetoric, invoked on behalf of government initiatives, ignores their history of consistent failure. In contrast, nothing is more inspiring than what individuals can achieve, pursuing their own advancement in liberty, through peaceful, voluntary cooperation that respects others’ equal rights. But a government continually using its coercive power to interfere in such arrangements and their prerequisites (clear, enforced private property rights) and impose its own dictates punishes rather than promotes the greatest source of advancement that exists.  

Kennedy’s words describe America’s founders, who risked everything to govern themselves with as much freedom as possible (“for America” only insofar as it promoted that freedom). But using that rhetoric to take from some without their consent to give to others, abandons their vision.

To “ask what you can do for your country” has been used to twist our founding principles.As Milton Friedman put it, it is “at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny…[It] implies the government is the master…the citizen, the servant.”

Americans need to recognize that “ask not what your country can do for you,” beyond what advances the general welfare, is good advice, but to “ask what you can do for your country” has been used to twist our founding principles. In fact, Richard Nixon offered more useful instruction when he said: “let each of us ask not what government will do for me, but what can I do for myself.”

What we do for ourselves, in voluntary arrangements with others, is all we can be sure will actually benefit Americans. What government demands of us “for our country” offers no such guarantee.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).