Sunday, January 16, 2011

Smackdown: John F. Kennedy vs. Milton Friedman

It's close to the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's famous inaugural address on January 20, 1961, where he challenged Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."  In the following year, Milton Friedman challenged Kennedy's famous statement in the introduction of his 1962 book "Capitalism and Freedom," and suggested that Kennedy was wrong, because a "free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country."

"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."


At 1/16/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

Here is a JFK quote, from Profiles in Courage, that MF may have agreed with:

"We, the people, are the boss, and will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve."

At 1/16/2011 3:35 PM, Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

In a global capitalist free market, nationalism becomes atavistic.

All we need is an all-powerful WTO, and a global central bank, and one currency.

No nation will be able to practice protectionism, or currency manipulation, thus leading to higher global living standards.

Labor, capital, goods and services are free to cross borders at well--free trade nirvana.

Milton Friedman had it right--the free man will not ask for anything from the state, nor should the state ask for anything from the free man.

One Worlders Unite! Wide open free trade baby!

At 1/16/2011 9:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can feeeel that Kennedy was not referring to a government in the negative portrayal you envision. If you want to pretend that you'd be free somewhere else, America is not perfect, but the man wasn't a dictator and he wasn't suggesting evil. A different time, a different place. You are engaging in a form of revisionism which is hard to compete with when some only read blogs while fewer read true history books at the library. Stop peddling snot on a man who paid with his life for reasons you evidently havn't grasped! Do the right thing and keep smiling. And never catch resentments here. It's about learning! -Wybaillie-

At 1/17/2011 6:45 AM, Blogger geoih said...

Quote from Benjamin: "All we need is an all-powerful WTO, and a global central bank, and one currency."

Your idea of freedom is simply universal tyranny by a faceless world bureaucracy? No thanks.

We can have free trade today. Just drop the tariffs, restrictions, subsidies and regulations. Uniform parasitism will only make things worse.

At 1/17/2011 6:53 AM, Blogger geoih said...

Quote from alexisssss: "... but the man wasn't a dictator and he wasn't suggesting evil."

I'm sure he wasn't, at least not in his own mind, but the end results are the same. In the end he was just another man seeking power in order to dictate to other people what to do. It makes little difference if you think those dictates are good or bad, they're still dictates.

At 1/19/2011 12:28 PM, Blogger RaplhCramden said...

The idea that freedom isn't paid for by some large group of people is a peculiar one of some modern libertarians. I think its like forgetting air is real and something and that breathing actually requires some prerequisites for its effortless execution.


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