It’s been less than a month since the gods decreed that, due to the election results, American political life henceforth must be all about something called “values.” And I gave it my best. Honest. But I’m sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as “values.” News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now, the tale of Bill O’Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.
Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct just because it gets labeled as a “value”? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a “value,” while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones barely qualifies as an opinion.
Those labels don’t confer any logical advantage. But they confer two big advantages in the propaganda war. First, a value just seems inherently more compelling than a mere opinion. That’s a big head start. Second, the holder of a value is automatically more sensitive to slights than the holder of an opinion. An opinion can’t just slug away at a value. It must be solicitous and understanding. A value may tackle an opinion, meanwhile, with no such constraint.
No doubt there are strategists all over Washington busily reconfiguring their issues to look like values. Highway construction funds? Needed to help people get to Grandma’s house for Christmas. You got something against family values, buddy? Or Christmas?
Especially humiliating are efforts by liberals to reposition the issues they care about as conservative and therefore, we hope, transform them into values. Welfare? It (like nearly everything else) is about families, of course. And affirmative action is about work and opportunity. Liberals’ actual motivation -- the instinct that a prosperous society ought to mitigate the unfairness of life to some reasonable extent -- isn’t considered a value. So let’s keep that one among ourselves.
Why should anyone care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Shouldn’t we prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose? For example, suppose we had a government that was capable of assuring enough flu vaccine to go around, like the governments of every other developed country in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice? And if we could have that kind of government, would anyone really mind if a few more of its leaders secretly enjoyed Janet Jackson’s halftime show at the Super Bowl?
The Republican congressional leadership says a clause giving congressional committee chairmen the power to examine anybody’s tax returns just slipped into a big spending bill by accident. Whoops! OK, it’s the holiday season: I’ll buy that. Maybe. But if so -- and call me a valueless heathen, if you must -- I would like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from now on to read the laws he intends to impose on the nation, even if he does it on Sunday mornings and has to miss church as a result.
It’s not just a question of values getting in the way of more pressing or relevant matters. It’s also a question of how much you want the government to be worrying about your values. My answer: not very much. My values are my own business. True, they are influenced by private and public institutions and by the culture at large -- no doubt in unhealthy ways, very often. But I don’t relish the idea of government getting involved to rectify that. And I thought most conservatives would agree. But politicians elected because of their values will probably see values as part of their mandate. That’s ominous.
Values have a wonderful quality not shared by other political issues that are more reality-based, such as the war in Iraq or the growing national debt: They can be nearly cost-free. This is often true in the simple economic sense that practical problems cost money whereas spiritual problems, even if real, usually don’t. It’s also true in the political sense that value-based issues usually don’t require much of a trade-off on the part of voters. You can be as pro-family as you want, without concern that you’re giving up valuable anti-family values.
A country whose political dialogue is all about values is either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems. When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.