David Brooks’s latest raises a lot of questions. He basically calls for a return to neoconservativism– who knew that it had been lost?– but he conclude with this point:
The solution is not to go back to 1980. It’s to imagine what kind of values Americans should have, and what kind of limited but energetic government can reinforce those values.
Now, there are lots of problems with “values” speak. As Allan Bloom pointed out back in The Closing of the American Mind, the very nomenclature of “values” represents the abdication of the concept of morality, a “Nietzscheanization” of academic discourse. These days, most everyone uses the language of “values.” Even “worldview” was originally of such German origins, yet it is now everywhere. So it’s unlikely that we’ll get rid of it, especially considering how entrenched the religious community has become in its defensive rhetorical posture. “Values” often represent their attempt to protect themselves through the 1st amendment and the broader concept of civil rights. That move, as is now obvious, works both ways, however, and so it also works to confine religion’s influence as well.
And so when Mr. Brooks suggests an “energetic government” that reinforces the right kind of values for Americans, the kind that they “should” have, we need to ask how this “should” is grounded. Is it in morality or efficiency or some combination of the two. Traditional Protestant civic theory agreed with a value reinforcing government, as the magistrate was the protector of both tables of the law. This was called Christendom: the body politic had a soul.
But it is unlikely that Mr. Brooks wants that sort of united commonwealth. The typical liberal (classical liberal) approach is to assume that you can so limit the spiritual aspect as to make it little more than a placeholder. As that’s seemed less and less likely, the conservatives and liberals seem to take turns suggesting that “values” and “morality” be fully removed from government, only to reverse course when they need the persuasive power of those values to mobilize support.
The reality is that everyone wants “values” in government. The real question is what they value.
No, I take it back. The real question is not what “they” or “we” value. The real question is what is valuable?
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