Was Kennedy a Conservative or a Liberal?

For your Thanksgiving dinner delight I am offering fodder for a friendly debate.

The idea that John F. Kennedy was really a conservative, rather than the liberal icon he is so often depicted as, is the thesis of a new book by Ira Stoll. The idea is seconded by George Will in a column in The Washington Post. Are they correct?

Before examining the case, let me make an important distinction. I seem to be one of the few writers who sees conservatism and liberalism as sociologies, not ideologies.

What’s the difference? As I explained in a previous post at this blog:

An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere. Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik’s Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

Has anybody here…

Take the issue of national defense. The Kennedy-was-a-conservative crowd points to the fact that Kennedy was the pro-defense candidate in the 1960 election. He accused Eisenhower of allowing a missile gap to occur and letting the Soviet Union become the stronger power. His solution? More silos with more missiles.

If you find it perplexing that a liberal Democrat would take that position, you are probably too young to remember that for most of the 20th century the Democratic Party was the party of war. The Republican Party was the party of peace. In fact, a not inconsiderable faction of the Republican Party was downright isolationist. Our anti-communist, Cold War foreign policy was almost completely shaped by Democrats. Although he was a general, Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War and give us international peace and stability. On his way out of office he warned of a “military industrial complex.” By contrast, Kennedy started the Vietnam War and his policies toward Cuba almost got us into World War III on two separate occasions.

It wasn’t until we got to the 21st century that the party positions had clearly reversed. Today, it’s the Republicans in Congress who worry that the sequester is taking too much away from the Defense Department. Most Democrats couldn’t care less.

So what’s the reason for the flip flop? There isn’t any. That’s the way sociologies are. They are fads that change through time.

Here is a different way of thinking about John Kennedy: Let’s look at him through the prism of ideology.

Throughout the 20th century (and actually for the past three centuries) the primary ideological divide was between individualism and collectivism. On this spectrum, there is no doubt about where Kennedy stood. He was pro-government. Yes he was anti-communist. But when it came to the issue of the individual versus the state, he was pro-state.

Consider this oft repeated quote:

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

To conservatives, that statement sounds patriotic. To liberals, it sounds illiberal. (The typical liberal campaign sound bite lists as many things as possible that the government will do for you if only the candidate is elected.) One more bit of evidence that Kennedy was a conservative. Right?

Here is a different way of looking at it. Think of it as a political philosophy. It’s the opposite of the Jeffersonian philosophy. For Jefferson the purpose of government is to protect individual rights so that people can pursue their own happiness. For Kennedy, government (national purpose) is an end in itself and people should serve it rather than pursuing their own happiness.

Once you see that Kennedy believed in big government as an end in itself, everything else falls into place.

On the international front, most people who are pro-government tend to also be pro-war. In fact the primary way government has acquired power — certainly in this country — is by going to war. An aggressive anti-communist foreign policy is consistent with this approach.

Or take the famous Kennedy tax cuts. To conservatives, this proves Kennedy was a supply-sider. And he was. But remember what happens when you are on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. When tax rates are lowered, government revenues go up. That means government gets bigger. It can spend more money. Do more things.

Casey Mulligan points out that Kennedy was actually rather chintzy when it came to welfare programs. According to Mulligan, Kennedy’s economic adviser James Tobin worried that if welfare was too generous, families would have an incentive to remain on the dole rather than working and producing.

Sounds just like modern conservatives? Yes, but it’s also in the tradition of the father of social insurance, Otto von Bismarck. For Bismarck, the purpose of the welfare state is to tie the self-interest of the individual to the state. He wasn’t trying to empower individuals; he was trying to increase the power of the government. And having a lot of people idle doesn’t help the state. It drains it of resources.

As for NASA and the goal of putting man on the moon, Kennedy never worried about whether this was taking resources away from the inner city poor to satisfy the curiosity of higher income, well educated people. The space program was one more exciting government venture — another end in itself.

In short, Kennedy wasn’t conservative or liberal. He was a believer in big government — at home and abroad; on Earth and in space. It’s just that simple.

Comments (22)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Interesting, thought provoking. Makes my head spin a little. Thanks for this, John. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Andrew Thorby says:

    The terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” are essentially meaningless absent context. They mean very different things to different people depending on the subject. Are you speaking about foreign policy, health policy, drugs policy, social policy, fiscal policy…the list goes on. As soon as I read either term in what purports to be a serious publication I immediately discount the content. The author has almost certainly brought an agenda to the table. Ideas and policies are either effective or they are ineffective. We do not need the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” in serious debate.

  3. Andrew Thorby says:

    …although might I say I agree entirely with John’s assertion that the terms are rooted in sociology rather than ideology. Excellent point.

  4. Buster says:

    Had he lived, John F. Kennedy would have been a great president — but history likely would not have recorded his immense contributions. Even if Kennedy had been mediocre, he still could have done wonders for America — had he did nothing more than save the United States from the scourge of the subsequent president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Johnson’s War on Poverty, creation of an unsustainable Medicare and Medicaid program, entry and escalating of the Vietnam War. These are all things that could have been avoided if Kennedy had merely ditched Johnson as his running mate and did nothing but sleep in the Oval Office for the next four years.

    • Dewaine says:

      “did nothing but sleep in the Oval Office for the next four years.”

      Think of how prosperous our country could be if this is what we expected from our “leaders”.

    • Roger Waters says:

      John, thank you for a great “brain teaser” to mull over the holiday!

      As for Kennedy being a great president, well, does the man make history or does history make the man? Many would suggest luck of draw played more into how Kennedy was perceived, and that history made him what he was an currently is perceived to have been.

      Dewaine has also a good point, if our “leaders” would step back and stop continuing to enforce collectivism (aka communism), then maybe the market would respond to freedom and actually grow without all the barriers put in the way of “good intentions” spawned by legislators – some of whom have never held a real job in the real world! And I mean a real private sector, P&L job that puts food on the table of workers every day and produces a tangible value to society – not consuming focused tax-and-spend profligacy from people who could never run a business. Not saying community organizing isn’t helpful in some situations, especially when my HOA wants to resserve funds for a new roof. Just that it has no business “leading” a country as the industrial policies it creates usually derail the economy. Ok, off the soap box and on to stuffing the turkey!

  5. JD says:

    This post does a great job of putting Kennedy’s legacy in the appropriate light. The things that Kennedy is praised for are, in actuality, not good. Kennedy’s legacy is war, poverty, and big government.

  6. Dewaine says:

    “Kennedy never worried about whether this was taking resources away from the inner city poor to satisfy the curiosity of higher income, well educated people.”

    This logic is not repeated enough. People need to understand that our lofty public goals take food out of the mouths of the poor.

  7. Vicki says:

    Very interesting take on this subject. You are right. This could easily consume a Thanksgiving dinner.

  8. Breck says:

    Yes, yes, yes — that makes perfect sense. I hope Krauthammer and Will are reading your blog.

  9. Bob Geist says:

    John, really a fine piece! Where I was blind, I now see clearly on the road from Camelot. Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all on this blog. Bob

  10. DoctorSH says:

    A true leader gets the most out of his team.
    A true leader teaches his students how to grow and be successful.
    A true leader does not feed his followers, but teaches them to fish.

    Agree with an earlier poster.

    Liberal and conservative in politics today mean the same as long as both are for big government. Today’s big government is being run by corporations.

    We need a true leader and soon.

  11. Mark Skousen says:


    Reagan said it best in his Goldwater speech of 1964: “There is no left or right, only up or down.”

  12. Uwe Reinhardt says:

    As far as I know, Bismarck introduced social health insurance as a preemptive, protective reaction strike against the budding socialism and communism of his days–not so much to tie a hitherto free German people (a laughable idea for Germany’s Imperial days) more closely to government. I believe historians would find your analysis of this part of history funny, John.

    I forgot that George Bush was a Democrat who ran on the platform that he would not “nation build” as a President, all the while scheming to get us involved in a war of choice. Someone had told me he was a republican and I believed it. Shows you how little I know.

    I assume a Republican President would have stayed out of WWII.

    Happy Thanksgiving weekend.


    • john goodman says:

      Good point about Bush.

      Obama, by contrast, did keep one campaign promise. Instead of capturing and imprisoning and torturing people, we are executing them (and anyone who happens to be near them) with drones.

      As economists, we can probably both agree that the latter strategy is cost minimizing.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you.

    • john goodman says:

      PS. some German history for you to absorb: http://www.historyorb.com/europe/bismarck.php

      • Uwe Reinhardt says:

        You believe this makes your point, or are you just trying to be nice?

        • john goodman says:

          It goes some distance in making my point.

          Too little time to research German history any more. I didn’t realize my point about Bismarck was even controversial. I just assumed everyone knew that.

          Bismarck was not an altruist. He was a statist.

          • Uwe Reinhardt says:

            No one says Bismarck was an altruist. He was a pragmatist serving the empire.

            But his introduction to social insurance was intended to head off the growing clamor of socialism, not to tied the German citizen more closely to the state. You misinterpret him.

  13. Wanda J. Jones says:

    Uwe–And what is Obama’s stated purpose? It looks like Kennedy’s belief in big government has come down to us magnified..

    Wanda Jones

    • Uwe Reinhardt says:

      Why ask me? You know him as well as I do.

      Yes, some people would give government a larger role in our society, some oppose that and would give the private sector an even larger role than it plays now.

      That is the American way. Has been for a long time. We swing back and forth between these two beliefs.