Sunday, January 18, 2009

Smackdown: Milton Friedman vs. John F. Kennedy

The upcoming inauguration has been getting a lot of attention, including many reviews of past inaugural speeches. Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to post economist Milton Friedman's rebuttal to President Kennedy's famous 1961 inaugural address:

From the introduction to Milton Friedman's 1962 book "Capitalism and Freedom".

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."
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.

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he 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 discharge our individual responsibilities, to 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.

10 Comments:

At 1/18/2009 10:47 AM, Anonymous Annonymous 4:26 AM said...

Maybe Friedman's assessment that "country" equals "government" is wrong. What if country is "the others around us", the collective citizenship (which, I guess, could be argued is "government", in our case).

Is it wrong to ask "What can we do to serve those around us?" It may not be financially prudent, but financial and economic efficiency isn't the end all-be all, either.

 
At 1/18/2009 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly, Anonymous. Friedman even goes on to say:

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.

So if Friedman realizes this, why was he equating country with government?

JFK may be paraphrased as: "ask not what others can do for you, ask what you can do for others around you."

That's certainly how I've always thought about it.

 
At 1/18/2009 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He is not implying that country equals government. He is implying that Kennedy equates country and government. That is because Kennedy, by 1962, had proven this.

 
At 1/18/2009 12:01 PM, Anonymous Brandon said...

Agree with 11:56. You're essentially taking Friedman's point, putting it in the mouth of JFK, and then saying MF is guilty of misinterpretation.

Why would JFK be chiding anyone for asking what others around us can do for us? Who sits around waiting for handouts from those around them?

And why would JFK choose his inauguration speech to say something like, "help those around you"?

Not sure where we get by making JFK out to be some kind of champion of decentralization and social capital building. The meaning of JFK's statement is pretty clear.

 
At 1/18/2009 4:41 PM, Blogger QT said...

"What can I and my compatriots do through government" to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?

Not quite as catchy, is it?

One also has to consider the historical context. This is a presidential inaugural address intended to confer gravitas on the speaker placing him within the pantheon of presidents of the past. The speech must have the same importance as Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg or the Declaration of Independence.

From that standpoint, it seems little more than an exercise in symantecs, a passage that sounds more substantiative than it is.

 
At 1/18/2009 6:36 PM, Anonymous Ralph Short said...

Maybe Obama will say something like "ask not what the taxpayer can do for you, stop whining, get off your ass, and handle your individual responsibilities."

My own guess is he will promise every loser everything and the lemmings will follow.

 
At 1/18/2009 7:48 PM, Anonymous Dr. T said...

A blogger I read hopes that Obama's inauguration speech will be as stirring as Kennedy's was. It probably will, which is cause for distress, not excitement. I, like Milton Friedman, never understood why people love that speech by JFK. It was a mangled mishmash of homilies and misguided ideas. It's just one reason why I believe that Kennedy was a poor president.

 
At 1/18/2009 11:56 PM, Anonymous Mika said...

This discussion illustrates the problem when people over analyze a text and get lost in speculative semantics.

Like every politician, Kennedy simply wanted to say something inspiring, noble, and memorable. History proves that he was more successful than most presidents in accomplishing that goal. If he hadn't been we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

He was obviously simply saying: don't ask our society to carry you but rather make a contribution to the betterment of the society. Only that, no more. I don't think those are goals that any of us can disagree with. . . . To try to attach any further meanings or intentions is silly.

 
At 1/19/2009 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My suggestion is simple - read the U.S. Constitution. It clearly lays out the roll of Government and the Rights of the Individual.

 
At 9/22/2009 10:42 AM, Blogger kaabee said...

Mika Sez - "Like every politician, Kennedy simply wanted to say something inspiring, noble, and memorable. History proves that he was more successful than most presidents in accomplishing that goal. If he hadn't been we wouldn't even be having this discussion."

Actually, the reason we're having this discussion is not because he said something that was noble, inspiring and memorable - it's because he visited Dallas in November of 1963 and became a martyr.

He really didn't accomplish much in his presidency except to beguile a gullible media and public. I look to his brother Ted to see the type of individuals both JFK and RFK would have become had they not been assassinated. As we can see, they would have been overweight obnoxious drunks who denigrated and took advantage of any female they could.

Friedman has class - the whole of the Kennedy Klan lacks it.

 

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