Fifty years ago, the newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy said to the nation, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
I first heard this quote when I was ten or eleven – many years after it was first said. As I matured, I began to doubt the premises of Kennedy's statement. Yes, many people have a sense of entitlement. Yes, many people blame other people for their own problems. But nobody actually asks, "What can my country do for me?" If anything, they say, "what should the government do for the people?" so that they won't sound selfish.
The other side of the question also implies that we have a moral obligation of service to the national government, the Federal State. When a Senator dies, he's not remembered for the wars, pork-barrels, victimless crime laws, bloated bureaucracies, and budget deficits he was partly responsible for, he's remembered for his "service to his country." For most of the political/bureaucratic class, it's not what they're doing for their country, it's what they're doing to it.
That said, I do recognize that the quote appeals to instincts that recognize that survival and happiness requires more than selfish actions. Love of country is ingrained in most of us.
But the best way thing to do for your country is to be a decent person. Here are some suggestions:
1. Leave other people's property alone; no theft, vandalism, or fraud
2. Tolerate other people's behavior and exchanges; mind your own business even if what they do is distasteful to you, and set a superior example for others to emulate
3. Don't demand special privileges from the government, and treat others equally and courteously in your business dealings
4. Respect , or at least tolerate, others beliefs and speech; don't call for regulation or punishment for what they say, and be open to new ideas
5. Show respect for immigrants and for persons of all nationalities
Before liberalism became conflated with Progressivism and the Welfare State, the behaviors described were recognized as the qualities of liberal. An individual could be quite conservative in manners and religion, yet be outwardly liberal with all whom he meets. To display these attitudes of respect and tolerance is to promote civility in the public square. If you govern yourself with these policies, you will foster harmony and prosperity within yourself, and your words and deeds will leave your country better off.
The country's government, in turn, can do something for you. It can adopt the same classical liberal values.
The government should
- leave your private property alone, as well as everyone else's.
- allow you to hire who you want, and exchange with who you want, on terms we mutually agree to.
- respect your just claims in a court of law regardless of your wealth, religion, skin color, gender, or marital status.
- never punish or censor your opinions and beliefs – nor anyone else's.
- allow the free flow of goods and persons, because nations do not go to war with trading partners
In short, the best thing to do for your country is to mind your own business, and the best thing your country can do for you is let you mind your own business.