Is Kennedy’s “Ask not” Good Advice?

By | February 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

Like most Americans, and many citizens of other nations, I felt inspired when I read President John F. Kennedy’s famous statement in his inaugural address:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you − ask what you can do for your country.

It was easy to be inspired by a young, charismatic leader. And after his assassination, Kennedy’s reputation grew to mythic proportions. But as years passed, I came to understand that he was a mediocre President. And I reassessed his celebrated declaration. I asked myself, is it good advice? Is it advice that advances the cause of freedom?

In time of war or national emergency, clearly it is necessary to put aside our personal concerns and ask what we can do for our country. That is exactly what so many men and women did after 9/11, and what they are still doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. We can question the way the war is being conducted, and we can question why it has lasted so long. But no one can question the courage, patriotism, and dedication of those young people − and some not so young.

But what is appropriate when there is no national emergency? What is the proper question then? Here we must stop and ask another question: Is there a time in the foreseeable future when there will not be some sort of declared national emergency?

There is a global war on terror, whether we want to admit it or not. But this war may go on for many years. Surely such a low-level, long-lasting conflict will make its own demands on us. But these demands cannot − must not − be allowed to increase government power, and decrease our freedom, in the same way that World War II did.

And then there is the so-called emergency of global warming − excuse me, climate change − not to mention the problems of the economy. The object here is to deal with problems one by one, as best we can, but without running around screaming that the sky is falling.

A perpetual emergency is a self-contradictory notion. When we agree that we must ask what we can do for our country during an emergency, we mean a genuine emergency of finite duration. Merely declaring an endless series of so-called emergencies does not grant the government a double-zero license to kill our freedoms.

We can now return to our original question: Is President Kennedy’s declaration good advice for a free people? I believe it is not. I believe that both parts of his statement are equally bad advice. Asking what my country can do for me leads me to become dependent on government aid. It infantilizes me.

● Either I am a child, and the government is my mommy, feeding me, housing me, and caring for me when I become ill. What else are food stamps? What else are government-subsidized housing and zero-down-payment home loans? What else is nationalized health care? What else are school breakfasts, lunches, and now suppers? But if I am not responsible for feeding my own children, what am I responsible for? This thinking typifies the underclass.

● Or I am a teenager, and the government is my dad. I get to spend what I earn as I please, then ask dad to help out. I get to live in my own apartment, then ask dad to help with the rent. I get to drive my own car, then ask dad to help with the payments, the traffic tickets, and the collision damage. I get to make my own mistakes, then ask dad to bale me out. I want to privatize my profits, but socialize my losses. But if I am not responsible for the consequences of my own mistakes, what am I responsible for? This thinking typifies the upper class.

In case you didn’t notice, this infantilization affects the middle class least. In today’s America, it remains the most adult. The poor and the rich are reinforced in their dependency by an enabling government, while the middle class is left to fend for itself − and carry the economy, and civilization, on its back. Obviously this cannot go on indefinitely.

On the other hand, asking what we can do for our country − in the absence of a true emergency − inevitably leads to loss of freedom. Instead, we should ask what we can do for ourselves, for our family, for our neighbors, for our community, and for our religious or civic groups. In this way, we can be as helpful and public-spirited as we want, and still not yield to the government even more power than it already has. In the highest sense, this is doing something for our country − making it a better place.

We can donate our time or our money, and not pay more taxes. In fact, statistics show that conservatives give more to charity than liberals, both in absolute terms and as a percent of their incomes. In fact, religious people give more to charity than secular people. In fact, Americans give more to charity than Europeans, both in money and by volunteering.

Of course, when taxes are high, people cannot give much to charity − they have little money left after buying essentials. Even worse, they have less desire to give to charity − they believe the government is taking care of the needy. High taxes are thus both an economic and a moral disincentive.

Babies know only themselves and their own needs. Then they recognize their parents. As children grow, they come − reluctantly − to understand that others have needs and wants as strong and as legitimate as their own. Later, they include friends and classmates in their circle of empathy.

But empathy grows as an enlarging circle, not as a doughnut with a hole at its center. We cannot “love all the peoples of the earth,” but not our own family. We cannot ask what we can do for our country, but ignore our own community. Such doughnut-like empathy isn’t empathy at all − it is a poor excuse for lack of empathy. It is an intellectualized way of ignoring the homeless person on the street, while thinking, “I pay high taxes to take care of bums like that.” By doing more for my country in the very narrow sense of paying high taxes, I risk diminishing my humanity.

I believe that it is equally incorrect to ask either question – what our country can do for us, or what we can do for our country. With all respect for Kennedy’s oratorical skill, I believe that his statement is unwise advice for a free people.

If you doubt this, ask what would happen if a Republican President had made that statement. Imagine the reaction if Reagan, or either Bush, or certainly if Trump had said that. Liberals and many conservatives would yell themselves hoarse, complaining about Big Brother and incipient tyranny. Something is either right or wrong, no matter who says it ‒ even a charismatic, martyred leader.

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