My wife and I went to see the movie Green Book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it.

I won’t bother recounting the story; that’s easy to find on line.

Instead I want to remark on a line in the movie. The white driver, Tony Lip, says to Dr. Don Shirley:

I like what you did back there, Doc. You stood up for yourself. It’s like your friend the President says, “Ask not your country what you could do for it, ask what you do for yourself.” You know?

Presumably we are supposed to laugh at that line. Many people at the movie, including my wife and me, did laugh.

But, whatever the screen writer’s intent with that line, it’s actually a very wise comment. Indeed, it is much better, content-wise, than the original JFK line. That line “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” was pretty horrible.

Here’s what Milton Friedman said about that line at the start of his classic Capitalism and Freedom:

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.” It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. 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 that 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.


But now consider the last part of Tony Lip’s formulation:

ask what you do for yourself.

So Tony is saying, possibly unwittingly but possibly wittingly, that what matters is that you look out for yourself and don’t depend on others. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t, for example, talk about people helping each other. But it’s much better than JFK’s statist formulation.