Before President Barack Obama gave his inaugural address, it had been reported that he was heavily studying John F. Kennedy’s speech at the inauguration in 1961. And no doubt Obama’s “call to service” will be compared to Kennedy’s inaugural that contained the famous lines: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
On the good side, Obama did hail “doers” and “risk takers” in his speech and talked about how they have improved our way of life. That’s important, given the bipartisan urge to stamp out all risk-taking in the wake of the financial crisis. Perhaps that’s a good sign that will Obama will look at the ability to take risks as an important consideration in policy matters.
Unfortunately, though, Obama mainly talked about individuals as a means to achieving collective goals. Left out were individual American dreams of building a business or a better life — which is what fights against state tyranny from the British stamp tax to Jim Crow laws have really been about.
So the best rebuttal to this aspect of Obama’s inaugural is actually the late great economist Milton Friedman’s rebuttal to Kennedy’s “ask not.” It came from the introduction of Friedman’s seminal book Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, one year after Kennedy’s inauguration. In this passage, Friedman rips the concept of “national purpose” that permeated the inaugural addresses of both Kennedy and Obama:
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.
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?
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.
So this inauguration, when we celebrate another peaceful transfer of power and congratulate President Obama for his impressive journey to the White House, lovers of liberty should ask what can we do to protect our freedom and lift goverment barriers to achieving our several individual purposes.