May 29 marks John F. Kennedy’s 90th birthday. Given his iconic status, we will hear his most famous line — “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” more than a few times. But unfortunately, few will think carefully about it.
Kennedy’s speech dramatically changed the meaning from its inspiration — 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.”
Clearly, politicians who abuse their positions to benefit themselves and their friends are parasites. In America, where government is explicitly limited to few, enumerated powers, solely to advance the general welfare, such abuse is even more blatant. We can condemn them for asking what the country can do for them. But applying “ask what you can do for your country” to citizens instead of politicians turns America’s founding upside down. Advancing the general welfare means advancing the welfare of the individuals that comprise our country. But asking citizens to sacrifice for the country, especially when the government is misleadingly used as the proxy for America, implies we were made for the government’s benefit, rather than it for ours.
Kennedy’s famous line has also been employed to justify innumerable government policies that harm the country, by helping some at others’ expense. Every special interest policy is an example, because forcing the tab onto others sacrifices the broad interests of the country to those who secure political favor. The pork in every spending bill also reflects the polar opposite of advancing our general welfare. Similarly, protectionist measures help specific producers at far greater cost to American consumers. Wage mandates benefit a few, but harm those they squeeze out of jobs and those forced to pay higher prices. Innumerable other restrictions and mandates involve similar abuses.
Kennedy’s words were also focused on “what together we can do for the freedom of man.” But financing the unjustifiable policies that dominate politics sacrifices our freedoms to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” by forcing greater burdens on us.
Inspirational rhetoric can unite people toward a common goal. But, despite politicians’ rhetoric of unity, we do not share most specific goals, which are tuned to our different preferences, abilities and circumstances. That is why our federal government was explicitly limited to the few goals we actually share, such as defense against aggression and invasions of our common, inalienable rights. And we must remember that even a policy that unites the interests of millions of citizens, if its costs are forced onto others, does not advance our shared interests.
Kennedy’s rhetoric is only invoked on behalf of government initiatives, as well. But that ignores such programs’ history of consistent failure. In contrast, nothing is more inspiring than what individuals can do, pursuing their own advancement in liberty, through peaceful, voluntary cooperation that respects others’ equal rights. But a government continually interfering in such arrangements punishes rather than promotes them, paralyzing the greatest source of advancement we know.
Kennedy’s words best describe America’s founders. They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to defend our liberty, so Americans could govern themselves over as broad a canvas of freedom as possible. But using those words to take from some, without their consent, to give to others, abandons our founders’ vision. Until we recognize that distortion, we might actually find more useful inspiration from Richard Nixon, when he said: “In our own lives, let each of us ask not what government will do for me, but what can I do for myself.”