CONSERVATIVE VALUES

A few words on “conservative values.”  There is a world of difference between conservative values (Senator Cruz’s favored term) and conservative principles.  The difference was well-described by the late William Safire, in these excerpts from “On Language; Principle vs. Value,” in the August 12, 1984 edition of The New York Times:

  • The word values has become the all-embracing vogue term for “God and country,” the work ethic, respect for family, coming to the dinner table with your hair slicked down and your mouth watering for apple pie with a slab of very American cheese. . .
  • Only a few years ago, principles were the big thing in politics; lately, that word has been shunted aside for values, usually modified as family values.  The phrase traditional values is also used, by people who probably mean historical values.  What happened in American life that replaced principles with values? What’s the difference between the two words?  . . .
  • The Latin principium meant “source, origin, beginning.”  That came to mean a primary truth that formed the basis for other beliefs and then to mean a rule for ethical conduct . . .
  • Not so with values.  Rooted in the Latin word for “strength,” the plural meant what Bacon used it to mean:  material worth.  It gradually came to acquire a meaning of intrinsic worth.  .  . In this sociopolitical meaning, values are neither standards of intrinsic worth nor eternal verities.  They are relative, not universal:  sociologists used the term to describe the behavior that is accepted by consensus.
  • Values can change but principles do not . . .Principles are what you stand for in life; values are what you stand around in among your friends. Principles are stern and unyielding; values are warm and supportive . . .

The Ten Commandments are principles; the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address are primarily statements of principles.  (Can you picture Lincoln orating about transgender bathrooms?)  The writings of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are statements of principles.  So are the writings of Karl Marx.  As indicated by Safire, the “God and country” model, the work ethic/ family dinner model, the yearning for a suburban house with kids and dogs, represents a set of values, not a principle.  Let’s simplify this:  principles are what you know you should do; values are what you feel like doing.

Today’s Republicans talk more about conservative values than they do about conservative principles.  They talk about abortion, gay marriage, GLBT issues, transgender bathrooms, etc., which involve  values, not principles.  This represents a political victory for the Left, as it means they have set the agenda; the battles are now being fought on their turf.  When policies once considered values are elevated to the status of principles, we are diminished.  When Tea Party members endorse a candidate because he is a “Christian Conservative,” one wonders which of the two words is the more important to them.

Many “conservatives” would not know Milton Friedman from Kinky Friedman, could not tell you the difference between a Hayek and a kayak.  These are people who do not care about the difference between free-market capitalism and the centrally-planned economy, who do not understand the principles behind their instinctive objection to governance by Executive Orders, who are clueless as to why Chief Justice Roberts chose to squander the opportunity to kill ObamaCare.

Ted Cruz presents himself as the only true conservative politician in America, but he shows little interest in Paul Ryan’s genuinely-conservative plans for reforming healthcare, Medicare, and Social security.  Senator Cruz talks often about conservative values but rarely about conservative principles.  He advocates “limited government” in ways that suggest he could not identify any of the good things that government can provide. Is he just pandering?

Orthodox conservative writers and commentators (think Kristol, William) cannot get over the fact that no one cares to understand conservatism anymore.  Could it be that the electorate  –  regardless of party affiliation  – would rather think about values than about the national economy and foreign policy?  Will the Republican Party ever be able to regenerate orthodox conservatism?  If the ascension of Donald Trump is any indication, the answer is, No.  Apparently Mr.Trump could not care less about Friedman and Hayek, and the same is true of his supporters.  Marco Rubio could win a dozen debates on the economy and foreign policy, and he still would not win the nomination.

If there is hope for a renaissance, it lies in the possibility that a lifestyle/values guy like Donald Trump might turn out to be a closet conservative-principles guy.  For sure, we are not likely to elect another President based upon his or her articulated principles.  Maybe it is comforting  to consider that Ronald Reagan, in the view of many, was elected on his values (and personality) rather than his principles.

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