Joe Biden’s inauguration falls on the 60th anniversary of perhaps the most famous presidential inauguration, that of John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. With political and cultural divisions roiling the nation, one can be forgiven for nostalgically looking back at the former event. Kennedy’s inauguration took place during a lost era of unity and domestic tranquility. Those amassed in the nation’s capital to witness Kennedy take the oath of office had just been subjected to a brutal snowstorm, but there was no way they could have anticipated the storms that would strike America’s social fabric over the next decade much less the next six decades. But what has kept Kennedy’s inauguration in the collective consciousness are the words he spoke during his inaugural address, specifically the frequently quoted line “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Unfortunately, the richness of Kennedy’s rhetoric has obscured the poverty of its substance.
Celebrated economist Milton Friedman challenged Kennedy’s famous challenge in the introduction to his bestselling book Capitalism and Freedom (1962). The Nobel laureate considered both of Kennedy’s opposing clauses to be misstating the proper relationship of the citizen in a free society vis-à-vis the government. To Friedman, it was not the government’s role to dole out benefits to the citizen as a parent would to a child, nor was it the citizen’s responsibility to serve the government as it would a master. In a free nation, the citizens are sovereign and it is the government that serves them by ensuring their freedom. According to Friedman, society is nothing more than component individuals pursuing individual objectives apart from which there is no separate common good.
But is Friedman correct? Is Kennedy? The answer to both questions is negative because, despite their differences, they both made the same mistake. They both mistook society (or “country” as Kennedy called it) as being synonymous with government. It was Friedmanite logic that led former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to once declare that “there’s no such thing as society.” But David Cameron, a British prime minister of more recent vintage, better approximated the truth when he stated “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.”
This distinction is also present in the late journalist Robert Novak’s favorite admonition, “Always love your country, but never trust your government.” Society should be properly understood as what is often referred to as “civil society,” all of the non-government institutions in society including the family. These institutions provide a buffer between individuals and the coercive state. The health of civil society has an inverse relationship with the size of government. Civil society tends to retreat as government grows, with the government replacing civil society and usurping its role in the lives of individuals, usually with disappointing results. For instance, many social scientists have traced the disintegration of the American family to the explosion of Great Society welfare programs in the 1960s. The fraying of civil society and the accompanying exacerbation of various social pathologies over the last 60 years suggests that there is indeed a common good separate from the mere amalgamation of individualistic aims. It is identifiable by comparing 1961 and 2021 and taking account of what we have lost.
Despite their shared Irish Catholic ethnicity, much more than just 60 years separates the presidencies of the youngest elected and oldest elected presidents. Kennedy’s youthful vigor hid a myriad of personal health difficulties and projected a boldness and articulate wit that inspired the oversized Baby Boom generation growing up in a country that was still new to being a global superpower. The geriatric Biden, who believe it or not was already an adult when Kennedy was inaugurated and is too old to be a Baby Boomer, reflects the aging American populace of 2021 and a superpower in twilight, chronically unable to carry out basic national prerogatives like balancing budgets and securing borders. Kennedy would confidently promise to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade while Biden publicly doubted the ability of Operation Warp Speed to deliver a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. You do not have to be Lloyd Bentsen to recognize that Joe Biden is no Jack Kennedy. But without common understanding of the proper relationship between the citizen, society, and the state, America’s current trajectory appears unalterable.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.