Monday, February 7, 2011

We are America

President Obama told business leaders Monday, "I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America... As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

This is really annoying - he just doesn't get it. And the businessmen he was speaking do, don't either. They just want to make a deal that will let them run their businesses and make profits. In this speech to the US Chamber of Commerce Obama echoed John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural speech about not asking what your country can do for you but, rather, what you can do for your country.

This gets it exactly wrong!! A system that depends on individual duty and sacrifice to function properly, is likely to malfunction badly, and to be abused by the worst elements of society. This Adam Smith already knew, and this, Milton Friedman already made crystal clear in his 1962 classic Capitalism and Freedom. In the first sentences of the Introduction he writes as follows:

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 worshiped 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?

This should be required reading at the White House.

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