Monday, November 08, 2004


Don Boudreaux over at Cafe Hayek brings up an interesting point:

But many (most?) people deify the state--deify it mostly because they regard it to be somehow uniquely representative of society or somehow uniquely important to society's welfare. It is neither.

No one laughed when John Kennedy charged his fellow Americans to

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your

Whether you agree with all, part, or none of this famous political line, it seems normal. When he belted it out, the just-inaugurated 35th President didn't sound foolish.

Suppose, though, that Orin Smith, President of Starbucks, were to proclaim theatrically in a telecast public address "Ask not what Starbucks can do for you. Ask what you can do for Starbucks."

He'd be taken for a fool. And rightly so. People do not exist to serve Starbucks; Starbucks exists to serve people. That's its only justification for existence. The same is true for every other firm and private institution.

Why do we treat government differently? Why do we treat the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, as someone more than--someone somehow greater than--the chief executive of one branch of one level of government in the United States? Neither the President of the U.S. in particular, nor the government in general, is anything more than human. All government officials--from the President to my mail carrier--are subject to the same human weaknesses, limitations, and temptations that afflict the rest of us.

It's too true: people see the state as something that is much more than merely the sum of its parts, maybe that's why people continue to overestimate its power...

1 comment:

Clara said...

Since I first heard that line, JFK's most famous, I thought it was ridiculous and not a little pompous. Isn't government supposed to serve the people? Protect their rights and all that?

The oft-quoted call to self-sacrifice wasn't even crafted by Kennedy. According to the current issue of The New Yorker, JFK's prep school headmaster was known to say, "It's not about what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate."

So charming! There's no greater return on a parent's tuition than having little Jack contribute to the greater good of Choate.