Much is said and written today about the divisions within the Republican Party and the American right more generally. We are thoroughly in the midst of a tumultuous ideological transition from the big government conservatism of the Bush years to a renewed focus on individual rights and limited government, though there remain elements in the Republican Party that seek to reverse or, more deviously, hijack that trend. Some—fewer than the Left would have one believe—do so in the name of a neoconservative ideology. Most are simply too imbued with the precepts of the conservative “me too”-ism that prevailed since the beginning of the Cold War. Still others remain captured by an ideology that seeks to do in our personal, religious, and social lives what the most fascistic elements of progressivism seek to do to the American economy. That ideology is social conservatism.
To be clear: traditional or, to use an anti-concept, ‘conservative’ social views are not, of themselves, harmful as a matter of course. One may easily yearn for a return to the cultural values of past eras when popular culture was no so afflicted with the nihilism one often sees today and may pursue a return to that lost ideal without forcing such views upon anyone else. One may hold traditional views about religion, education, marriage, sexuality, drug use, etc., all without compelling others to act as you would act or denying their rights. To hold such views privately is the right and prerogative of each and every individual.
Thus, social conservatism as a cultural ideology, whatever one may think of its individual precepts (and opinions vary even among social conservatives as to what those are), does not pose any political harm to Americans and their freedoms. Some of those views may even be valid. Where the danger emerges is when that cultural ideology develops into a political ideology—that is: an ideology respecting the nature, role, and activity of the state and its powers. When individuals and groups seek to use the state as a weapon to compel others to act according to a certain set of values, the choice of which values they choose to mandate is irrelevant. Values as such are lost.
To understand the destruction of values that follows from such acts of force, one must first understand the nature of values as such. For this, we must delve into a bit of philosophy.
Values are objective. That means that they depend equally upon the existence of a subject and an object. One cannot simply “value.” To say “Johnny values” is essentially meaningless. To value, one must value something—an object. Likewise, something cannot simply be valued without someone, a subject, to value it. All systems in moral philosophy—the branch of philosophy devoted to the study of values—failed to uphold one or the other of those requirements prior to the inception of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism in the 20th century. Before that, all philosophical schools were either subjective, believing that value existed entirely in man’s mind without reference to external entities, or intrinsic, believing that certain existents or actions were good or bad ‘in and of themselves’, without need of anyone to value them.
An objective system of value satisfies the question “Of value to whom and for what?” It rests upon objectively demonstrable standards. In ethics, the ultimate value upon which all other values depend is man’s life. Nothing can be valued without a rational mind such as man’s to do the valuing. Since no other rational species exists, values in the absence of man are impossible. Thus, man’s life is preeminent as the ‘standard of the good.’ That which improves man’s life is good; that which destroys or works against it is evil.
By this logic, to value is to think—and to think rationally. Valuing requires a rational appraisal of the value of entities, ideas, knowledge, people, and everything else by reference to a standard. In ethics, that value is man’s life. In any specific task or ambition, one may likewise value specific things that aid in its pursuit. The key is that a rationally derived value depends equally on the questions “To whom?” and “For what?”
Values thus depend upon rational minds to appraise the world around them and determine the functional or moral worth of what they see. But on what does rational thinking depend? Man is, by philosophical definition, a rational animal. As a species, we are unique in our lack of instinct and innate knowledge of the world and how to survive in it. Those abilities were replaced with rationality and logic that have permitted us an incomparable measure of knowledge about the universe far beyond what any other creature can conceive. Still, with rationality comes risk. To define man as a rational animal is only to say that he can act rationally—not that he always will.
As a result, we may choose the wrong values. We may come to value things that endanger us or lead us town treacherous and uncertain paths as individuals or as a culture. We may choose illogical courses of action and misjudge our surroundings or others we encounter. We may face hard—even fatal—consequences for our misjudgments in what we choose to value. However, though he may falter and his choices may be found wanting, the only way to ensure that an individual will not choose the right values is to deny him the right to choose his values at all.
To value is to choose to value. This is as true morally as it is economically. It requires an individual mind to apply to any entity or action the standards of value that it chooses and to determine whether those standards are met. A mind, however, cannot perform this evaluation under threat of force. Minds cannot be forced, only stopped by force. This makes value and force irreconcilable.
Thus arises the folly of trying to use the force of the state to alter the moral values of a people, whether in the name of ‘social conservatism’ or of ‘progressivism.’ The first rests on an intrinsic theory of value, holding that people may be coerced into action so long as that action is viewed as inherently good; the second, resting on a subjective theory of value, defines ‘good’ itself as whatever a majority dictates, thereby sanctioning the majority to forcibly compel any dissenters to obey its decrees. Neither permits the free pursuit of rational, objective values. Both are inimical to freedom and the protection and flourishing of human life.
In light of this understanding of values, it is easy to see that the attempt to use the force of government to coerce individuals to abide by certain religious, customary, sexual, educational, health, or other social practices is not only wrong but also impossible. Values cannot be hammered into minds, only hammered out of them. Our Founding Fathers understood this fact. Note the separation of church and state that they fiercely guarded and the lack of any meddling social policy language in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is thus unsurprising that today one sees a growing divide among Republicans between those who cling to the dwindling social conservatism of years past that treated government as a tool of coercion and those who embrace the language and spirit of the Constitution by respecting the limits of government in all spheres of life.
There is a fundamental divide between these two visions for America—a rift that cuts deeper than labels and rhetoric to our most basic ideas of governance. Today, Republicans are straddling that divide, but it is not a position that can be held indefinitely. Someday they will have to choose between being the party of freedom and individual rights or being merely the social equivalent of everything they reject in progressives. The sooner they end the balancing act, the sooner America can get on to being the country it was meant to be.