"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Values–How They Get In The Way Of Governance, Foreign Policy, And Justice


America was founded on sound Enlightenment principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  Life,  liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, wrote Jefferson and his colleagues, were God-given; and both citizens and their elected representatives had a civic and moral responsibility to protect them.



The pursuit of happiness, explained Jefferson, was not an idle article of governance, but a solemn duty to pursue one’s individual desires only within the context of community.  There would be no place for venal, self-serving ambition within the Republic.  It was to be a place of strong individualism, freedom of movement, expression, and assembly, and would be a model for those societies struggling under oppressive rule.

These principles were laid down as the foundation for the new nation not only because they were inherently right, but because adherence to them would assure that American society would develop and progress civilly and without need for bloody revolution. 



The Founding Fathers understood the difference between principles and values.  The foundational principles of the Republic were like the Ten Commandments – rules which may have been derived from religion and philosophy but were meant as guidelines for personal and civic behavior.  Injunctions against adultery, theft, covetousness, false witness, and murder are essential regulations intended to promote and keep order within society. 

Jewish in origin, these principles have guided all world societies, for they correctly warn against the most dangerous expressions of human nature.  Survival of the fittest is defined by  territorialism, aggressive expansionism, and implacable defense of family, land, and property; and unless individuals are guided by principles which protect polity and community, such violent self-interest would end in chaotic destruction.

These principles are also important because they protect a society’s values.  Values, distinct from principles, are expressions of valuation.  Marx and other political philosophers were quite right in defining man as an economic animal who makes decisions based on cost, benefit, risk, and reward.  No one person, however, shares the same perception of value of another, and therefore individual value systems will always be distinct.



Political conservatives value the individual higher than the community of which he is a part.  Enlightened self-interest, and the free expression of individual talent, creativity, enterprise, and ambition will always benefit society at large because such society is not more than a collective unit of individuals.

Progressives on the other hand believe that the individual is less important than community which is not simply an aggregation of individuals but has its own inherent and unique higher value.

Americans differ on the valuation of life.  Pro-choice activists insist that a woman’s rights are more valuable than the potential or actual life of a fetus.  Pro-life advocates believe just the opposite.  One cannot parse and categorize types of life, they say.  All life is sacred and valued above all else.

Every contentious issue debated today – gay rights, religious freedom, welfare, gun control and many others – is based on different perceptions of value.  Conservatives, for example, value a two-parent, heterosexual union.  They believe that while there may be room for alternate sexual arrangements, the preservation of a family unit that is the biological, cultural, and moral core of any society, is paramount. 

Conservatives, often accused of lacking compassion for the poor because of their criticism of entitlement and their championing of individual enterprise and responsibility, reject the accusations entirely.  Only by fostering  a culture of responsibility, duty, enterprise, respect, and individualism can the poor ever progress.

If those with differing value systems were to abide by the principles of the Founding Fathers, America would not be the divided, angry, and aggressively selfish nation that it is today.   If citizens were to take Jefferson to heart and understand that individual expression and enterprise always come with an important  caveat of social responsibility, there would certainly be less acrimony and violent dissent.

Looked at within this perspective, ‘Black Lives Matter’ would be more easily resolved.  Those who value civil order, individual responsibility, and an adherence to democratic principle no matter what the grievance might find common ground with those who value race, diversity, and ‘inclusiveness’ above all else.  If the agenda were to address the nature of conflict – i.e. the social dysfunction of black communities, their high rates of crime, and the consequent suspicion and aggressive discipline on the part of police – a resolution or at least a way forward could be found.

As it is values get in the way.  Black lives are being either valued or devalued.  A priori automatic accession  of all black citizens to all rights and benefits of the majority society may be of the highest value to some; but others may insist that there is a price to pay for such full membership.   Some value racial equality above all and without caveat.  Others insist that the principles of American society as originally conceived in 1787 cannot be broken or abrogated.  Values are secondary when it comes to preserving the foundations of the Union.



Perhaps the best example of the confusion of principles and values can be seen in the Supreme Court.  The Court, the highest authority in the land and the last step in any and all judicial proceedings, has been authorized to rule on Constitutionality.  That is, to set values aside and determine whether or not a particular case violates articles of the Constitution.  Values are supposed to be irrelevant, and only precedent, objective legal reasoning, and a careful reading of the words of the Constitution should be allowed.

Yet the Court is and has always been divided along partisan lines which, after all, are value lines.  Political philosophy if nothing else is one’s embrace of values, and the liberals on the bench almost uniformly express these values in their decisions.  If they are conservative, they tend to favor individual rights whether personal or corporate.  If they are liberal they tend to side with government and its argument of social values.   Supreme Court Justices are all presidential appointments, and Presidents understandably put forward nominees who espouse their own values and political philosophy.

In the contentious environment of America today, the principles enshrined in the Constitution have become values, and thus distorted.  Although freedom of expression is a founding principle of the nation, the Founding Fathers never envisaged the rancorous, ill-founded, and intemperate protests of today. The value of the life of the fetus vs the value of a woman’s bodily integrity is a legitimate distinction; but not one to incite violence, hatred, and dissension.

American foreign policy has always been based on the idea of exceptionalism.  Democracy is not simply a political system based on principles of equal rights and justice; but one of higher moral value.  There is no room for objection or dissent allowed from those countries America is hoping to influence.  There is something immoral, wrong, if not inherently evil about a society which deliberately and persistently denies individual liberty, promotes cultural homogeneity, and insists that individual freedoms will always come second to national harmony and purpose.

Yet country after country is not only questioning but denying America’s exceptionalism.  Democracy is not a value, they say, but a political system which is outdated if not archaic given today's geopolitical realities.  Russia, China, Iran, ISIS and other political groupings have asserted that historical culture, religion, or social nationalism trump individualist democracy at every hand.
Machiavelli and his most influential modern exponent, Henry Kissinger, have both argued for a foreign policy based on realpolitik, a policy which is based entirely on national self-interest.  If ISIS and radical Islam are the enemies, then they must be destroyed at all costs including civilian lives.  The fight today should be no different than that of America vs Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary acts to remove the world of the evil of Hitler and the threat of Asian imperialism.



According to both Kissinger and Machiavelli, there are no such things as values in war.  Wars are for winning, and although both men were circumspect about aggressive wars, they were resolute when it came to defensive ones.

George W. Bush and his NeoCon advisers rejected the idea of realpolitik, and felt that the war in Iraq was more than anything an attempt to spread Western-style democracy and liberal economics to the Middle East.  The Establishment of a democratic regime in Baghdad would have an inevitable effect on the entire region.  Newly prosperous, free, and enterprising Iraqis would show the way. 

The war went wrong for many reasons, but principally because it was the wrong war at the wrong time and place.  Although revisionist reasoning is never advised, the ill-advised invasion of Iraq based on American values was completely wrong.  Given the reasoning of realpolitik, the real enemy was and still is Islamic terrorism, and rulers like Saddam Hussein, Assad, and the Egyptian military should have been supported, not attacked.

Jimmy Carter's focus on 'human rights', the antithesis of realpolitik, set back American foreign policy by decades, enforcing a values-first approach to conflict.  None of America's enemies then or now ever subscribed to such accommodating ideas, and we are still paying the price for his idealism.

Values count for nothing.  Geopolitical self-interest counts for everything.  If one accepts that human nature underlies all human activity whether that of individuals, families, communities, regions, or countries; and if one accepts that human nature is territorial, self-protective, aggressive and self-interested, then foreign policy should be no different than any civil rule.

The Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights had it right.  While one was a list of injunctions and the other a profession of rights, they both were based on principles which took human nature into account.  Jefferson and the Founding Fathers knew how society could come apart at the seams if individualism ran rampant in a laissez-faire environment.  The authors of the Sinai tablets knew as well that rules, regulations, and principles were absolutely necessary to control the worst in Man.

Now more than ever, Americans should reject values and return to principles.  At least they should keep their personal valuations more private and defend and promote them only within the principled limits set forth by the Constitution and every other official or unofficial regulators of a very dangerous Society of Man.

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