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Friday, January 21, 2011

Wrong Questions

Fifty years later.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Fifty years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy said those words during his inauguration as president. It is undoubtedly the best-known line from any American inaugural address, except perhaps for FDR’s “[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Besides the government, I’d say.)

That JFK’s words are so well remembered and so often quoted can be chalked up to one of three things, depending on who’s doing the quoting: 1) pudding-headed political naiveté,  2) condescension, or 3) cynical special-pleading by those who aspire to reap the benefits of all the “do[ing] for your country.”

First off, what does “country” mean here? We’re not really meant to ask that question, because if we do, things begin to fall apart rather swiftly. Does doing for your country mean doing something beneficial for one’s fellow human beings who live in the territorial United States? If so, any honest participant in the marketplace is doing it already. He or she hardly needs to be admonished by a president who himself never made that sort of contribution. All genuine market participants (those who eschew fraud and political privileges) offer goods and services that other people believe will make their lives better. Productive people’s direct motive may not be to do unto others, but that’s what they must do via persuasion if they are to prosper. (The existing corporate state of course enables the well-connected to prosper by other means.)

Now contrast that with the people ridiculously called “public servants” — you know, the ones who decide what is good for you and then impose it by force  — all the while raking in nice incomes, perks, and prestige. Is there anything more self-serving than “public service”?

Country = Government

We may assume, then, that Kennedy did not mean we should try harder to produce goods and services that others are willing to buy. And we can rule out simply being nice to one another. It’s clear he had other things in mind, because had he meant only those things, he would have proposed radically scaling back the power of government, setting us free to do them. Of course government was wrapped up in his and every politician’s notion of country. The country may be the body, but the government is the head.

What about that second part? Taking “country” in the likely corporate political sense, why would any self-respecting person ask what he or she can do for it? This is an important question, since we grow up being told that what makes America different is our right to live our lives as we please, unfettered by duty to the State. (Theory and practice diverge here, of course.) The Declaration of Independence talks about the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where does it mention service to the State, or what Chris Matthews refers to as “the call to duty”? Who does talk about service to the State? I’ll leave you all to ponder that question.

I just don’t see where such service is any kind of virtue. It clashes with the Kantian/Randian principle that each person should be regarded as an end in him or herself. And it’s particularly unseemly for a president to preach it. With all due respect, who the heck is he – any of them — to lecture us? In theory we’re the masters and he’s the servant. (Once again, theory and practice part ways.)

Check Your Premises

Well, as Ayn Rand would say, check your premises. In fact, we’re the servants and they are the masters. (See my “The Misrepresentation of Health Care Reform” for details of this relationship.) Or more precisely, they are the self-servants, the misleaders, and the misrepresentatives. The semblance of service to us is a mere cover for their exercise of power.

I like how Milton Friedman put it:

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 the government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary.

In light of all this, we might edit Kennedy’s words thus:

Ask not what your “country” can force other people to do for you. Ask who benefits from what you do for your “country.”

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.