Milton Friedman on JFK’s Speech

Many may have forgotten that Milton Friedman begins Capitalism and Freedom with a critique of President Kennedy’s inaugural speech.  It is well-worth another look – so dig out your dusty and yellowed copy and read the introduction again.  The key line is this one:

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country.

Given the context, Friedman clearly (mis)uses the term country as a stand-in for government or state.  Understanding this makes his critique even more powerful, otherwise it would sound a lot closer to Rand than the Friedman who believed in private charity and wouldn’t have a problem with sacrificing for the good of others in the community as long it was voluntary.

6 thoughts on “Milton Friedman on JFK’s Speech

  1. But wait: Doesn’t your correction completely undermine the cogency of MF’s critique of the speech? If JFK had said, “Ask not what your state/government can do for you, but what you can do for your state/government,” then MF would have had a powerful point. But that’s not what JFK said. So . . . what?

    1. Kennedy was making the same mistake — a common one in this age – of using the term country to mean something more than the territory of America or the people who inhabit this land of America. At best, he was conflating the two as communitarians do. At worst, he was really talking like your correction. And I think that is what people laud — otherwise his point wouldn’t have been all that Periclean but much more like Bush’s Thousand Points of Light!

  2. I don’t think there was much doubt that Kennedy was using “country” to mean exactly the nation or state, so I don’t see that as a complaint about Friedman at all. But nor do I really fault Kennedy for that either. Now, if either had used “society” or something like that, I’d be more bothered. As it is, I take Kennedy’s point to be unproblematic in that way, and Friedman’s response to be right on the money.

  3. “…it would sound a lot closer to Rand than the Friedman who believed in private charity and wouldn’t have a problem with sacrificing for the good of others in the community as long it was voluntary.”

    Coming into this world involuntary, going out involuntary, remaining healthy somewhat voluntary, “being at the right place at the right time” involuntary, personality mostly involuntary, etc etc so when a person becomes of age there’s this illusion of control proposed as to “sacrificing for the good of others in the community” that is essential.

    1. I am missing the illusion. Because many things are not up to us, it doesn’t follow that the things that are up to us somehow are not either.

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