In the midst of the wailing laments over the spiraling socialism and (concordant) growing corruption of the United States government, you will hear many on the right desperately keening about the need to return to “traditional American values”. Now, I do admit that this can mean many things, and it’s not always clear what exactly—and frankly, I’m not sure those yearning for these values really know, either—but I will define them as I generally understand them; and I submit that this is as accurate a summary as one can reasonably expect.
Traditional American values are almost always a political reference to individualism (often “rugged individualism”) and small government. They are the idea that men should pretty much be left alone to work out their own existence for themselves, mostly free from coercive external governing authority, and becoming collectively involved only with the “nobler” associations of church (and this means primarily the Protestant Church) and family and local government, and these only insofar as they can be used to affirm and promote the future dissemination of individualism and small government.
Now, apart from the uncomfortable and specific contradictions running through these ideals (e.g. Protestant orthodoxy in all its denominational iterations teaches the most anti-individual and anti-liberty doctrines in the world and in world history: Total Depravity and Original Sin). I will concede that these values are ostensibly virtuous and well-intentioned. The problem, however, is that when examined, or when the intentions and understanding of those wishing to return to them are examined, they collapse under the weight of a pervasive and intractable irrationality.
The first question begged is: How will a return to traditional American values not inevitably bring us right back to where we are now? In other words, hindsight reveals that the evolution of traditional American values has placed our nation in the here and now, where it stands as an empire and a culture in embarrassing decline, exhausting itself in an ongoing carnival sideshow of neo-Marxist ideology, ethical relativity, group-think, collectivist bigotry, newspeak, narcissistic and psychotic political officials who see the State as merely an Authoritarian Pez dispenser (which is inevitable as State Power is an absolutely irresistible carrot and stick to such personalities), political gangsterism, man-babies, female entitlement, corporate fad-ism, crony capitalism, marxist feminism, junk science (like “gender fluidity’…and pretty much all social sciences), welfare, morbid obesity, hedonism, stupidity, and cowardice.
But no, they will say. Traditional American values are not an evolution…they are not a political doctrine. They are a way of thinking about man and his existence and the fundamental philosophical notions of freedom and political equality. These values are the philosophical foundation of our nation, they are not products of that nation.
I aggressively disagree. I do not accept that traditional American values are a-political, or a philosophy which informs government rather than a political expression of government. On the contrary, they are the very essence of politics and government. The founding of this nation is utterly and unavoidably the foundation of this nation–state. Government is the very core of America, and thus it is the very core of American identity, and thus it is the very core of traditional American values. And if government is the very core of America and American identity, then the governing of Americans is thus the very core of America and American identity. And this being the case, there are no traditional American values until an American government is established. Traditional American values are a product of how Americans are governed. The idea that traditional American values don’t have anything fundamentally to do with government and politics is a joke. They have everything to do with politics and government. They don’t exist, having no relevance nor efficacy, until after there is a government in place to manifest them collectively—because the collective practical implementation of ideals is what the government does. That’s the whole damn point. And that’s really what “traditional American values” are: collectivist ideals. And without the practical manifestation of these collective ideals there is no America, and thus there are no Americans, and thus no American values. The values remain infinitely abstract and irrelevant; pointless and meaningless. Thus they are not values at all. They are ethereal mist, doing nothing, and being nowhere.
So traditional American values are inexorably corollary to American government, and government, or governing, is objectively and empirically an evolutionary process. It starts as A and evolves to B, and this is because society changes. The young grow old; the old die; new citizens are born; technology morphs and grows; industry is moblized and changes the landscape and culture; products are created and used and disposed of; capital is made and lost; wars are fought and won or lost; and all of this changes people, changes desires and objectives and ambitions, changes the very makeup of society, racially, sexually, politically, intellectually, and economically; new politicians are elected, new laws are made and passed, national identity shifts, and thus what it means to be an “American” shifts. And what were once just “American values” one day become “traditional American values”, which are somehow and by some mysterious means utterly divorced from the the “current American values”; or as the right thinks of them, un–American values. But the reality is that you do not get the latter without the former. You don’t get today’s “un-American values” except by way and evolution of “traditional American values”. Traditional American values are not a national philosophy…they are not foundational and underwriting presuppositions concerning the nature of man and reality, which are uniquely and distinctly and infinitely American, as though being “American” has some kind of fixed and absolute and fundamental meaning and essence which is completely distinct from government and governing as it is today, and as it was yesterday, and as it will be tomorrow. Traditional American values are ideals which imply a State which implies a government which implies the evolution of that government.
Since traditional American values are at root state-affirming ideals, they collectivize individuals as an expression of national collective identity. We can speak of “rugged individualism” all we want but individualism really has nothing to do with it. And national collective identity is dictated by government to the people who are in turn obligated by threat of incarceration, sanction, theft, and death to its authority to compel them to the inexorably and unavoidably collectivist “American Ideal”…or “American values” which the government, and the government alone, has the legal and thus ethical (as legality is its own ethical premise) right to manifest upon the earth, no matter what any given individual thinks or wants, ever.
Therefore, appealing to traditional American values can be quite simply and quite rationally defined as whatever values the state happens to be implicitly and/or explicitly dictating at the moment. And currently our American values happen to be the values of violence, stupidity, irrationality, neo-Marxist authoritarianism, and cultural stultification. Our traditional American values are manifest as these things today. It could only have ever been so, and only ever shall be again if we somehow return to them.
Now, let’s supppose for the sake of argument that traditional American values are in fact an appeal to some kind of rugged individualism…some kind of philosophy which lauds the egalitarianism of the soul, the efficacy of the will, the right of man to life, liberty, and property; the practical utility of the mind, the ability of man to apprehend truth and good and to efficaciously act upon them of his own volition, and cooperation over coercion. Let’s suppose that they exist somewhere beyond the State, beyond government, absolute and meaningful in and of themselves, needing no authoritarian incarnation to grant them practical utility upon the earth. Yes, let’s just say that that’s all true. The question then is this: Should we ever return to these traditional American values, how can we ensure that our nation won’t end up right back here, smack in the middle of the marxist circus tent revival of violent leftist ideology?
The answer is that you can only do this one of three ways. And none of them I submit has anything to do with the America that was founded in Philadelphia in 1776, or 1787, whichever you prefer.
The first is that we use the power of the State to compel people by force to submit to traditional American values. Put simply, we give them no choice. Submit to the values or die.
However, this undermines the essence and integrity of traditional American values, which are seen as elevating and venerating individualism, self-reliance, responsibility, moral choice, and liberty. Not that hypocrisy ever strays too far from those espousing a return to traditional values. I personally know of several right-wing voters who don’t bat an eye at the idea of compelled school prayer, compelled recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (a collectivist propaganda yarn if there ever was one), compelled standing for the National Anthem, criminalizing the desecration of the American flag, public dress codes, compelled voting, compelled Christian education, compelled church membership, and significant restrictions on public expression and private businesses. So, it seems that “traditional American values”, when defined a certain way, are much more Authoritarian than is comfortable to admit. The idea of compelling people under threat of government violence isn’t as far-fetched or unthinkable with respect to “liberty” and “rugged individualism’ as we might believe.
At any rate, then, the forced submission of citizens to traditional American values is one way we could ensure a more “traditional” society, I suppose. Of course, only a fool would think that a fascist America, which is what this would be, is any better than a communist one. So I suggest we can throw away this option, as it isn’t particularly rational nor realistic. It’s certainly a way we could look at things—legal enforcement of values is not in and of itself an arcane idea…hell, that’s the whole point of the State, and is why and how moral ethics are ultimately subordinated to legal ethics, which is a primary reason why nations inevitably collapse. But in light of the common meaning of what it means to hold to traditional American values, it’s relatively safe to call the statist enforcement thereof a bald-faced hypocrisy. To compel people by threat and force to obey, as opposed to choose, traditional American values, gives us an America that is anything but “traditional”. So…option one is out.
Option two is to go in the completely opposite direction, and that means to eschew the legal, coercive enforcement of values entirely. We don’t have the lazy option of the State bailing us out when we fail to convince our neighbors to accept our values and commit to them. All we have is reason, persuasion, empirical evidence, and leading by example. That’s it. No guns. No bombs. No gallows. No gulags. No guillotines. No firing squads. No ovens. No crosses. No chicken-shit cop-out dick-swinging threats of jack boots and jumpsuits. Just you and your powers of persuasion, alone in the arena of public discourse.
Go get ‘em, tiger.
In other words, we reject the State as having anything to do with our values. If we want rugged individualism, we cannot appeal to a giant, nuclear-armed Collective Authority, bristling with prisons and stuffed with ruling class greed and conflicts of interest. If we want to promote liberty, we cannot appeal to the Authority-Submission construct of government, which includes the comandeering and redistribution of labor and property in order—and this singularly so—to promote obedience to the State (via the artifice of Law) and the elevation of the ruling class, and to specifically suppress the exercise individual choice, which is the exact opposite of liberty. We must implore our fellow man to resist the slide into the abyss of today’s neo-Marxist hellscape by asking them to choose freedom over force; individual choice over forced compliance.
These “traditional American values” then have absolutely nothing to do with the government, and thus nothing really to do with the nation-state, and thus nothing to do with America per se. They don’t have anything to do with political representation, the law, “free and democratic” elections, or voting. They have nothing to do with asking people to vote to give the State legal Authority to force those with opposing values to comply with our own. For that is tyranny, and tyranny is not a traditional American value. These values are defined apart from the governing body that declares who and who is not a legitimate American, as a citizen.
Yet this seems to be quite anathema to what it means to hold to traditional American values, which implies a civic duty to vote for things that are considered “traditionally” American. So, all that being the case, option two really won’t get us back to traditional American either. I have never heard of “traditional American values” which did not recognize the need for the nation–state, and thus the government, of America.
Option three is to return to the original, relatively diminutive size of our government as it was first established. We shrink it back down to its minarchist roots, with just a skeleton crew and basic libertarian functions—police, military, courts.
And then what? We just hope for the best? I mean, we already had that, and look where we are now? So how do we ensure that the evolution from a government which is small, well-defined, and unobtrusive to one that is massive, elusive, subjective, militaristic, sadist, and selfish doesn’t repeat itself?
Well, we can encourage people to exercise their free and independent will, emphasizing choice over legal command, which is the only thing that will ever prevent the intrusion of State power into every facet of human existence. We can appeal to utterly anti-government and purely voluntarist ideals such as individual morality, personal responsibility, cooperation, negotiation, and a devotion to the ethics of morality rather than legality.
But…this is simply a reiteration of option two, which voids the state, and thus implies no government, not a shrinkage of it.
So what else? I guess we encourage people to vote for politicians who will use the hammer of the State to force our political enemies to comply with our values; to bend their commie knees to our will, under pain of death and prison…or worse. But this makes us no better than our commie enemies, and accelerates the rise of authoritarianism in government, getting us nowhere near our traditional American values…and is simply a reiteration of option one.
The point here I am making is that option three gets us nowhere except back to options one or two, and as I have already explained, neither of these finds us returning to traditional American values.
So let’s just be honest with ourselves; stop engaging in political and philosophical kindergarten, and bluntly confront the truth. Because the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can recognize our real options, and pull our heads out of the ether of fantasyland and look to actual solutions, instead of childishly placing our hopes in the illusory utopia of yesteryear’s bucolic America with its dewy traditions.
There is no going back!
You and I both know this, and we always have, deep down. The return to “traditional American values” is a myth, because “traditional American values are themselves a myth.
Any “return” to “traditional American values” simply brings us right back to where were are…right here, right now, as it is, as you look around and see it. Because there is no such thing as “traditional American values”…there are only rational ideas and irrational ideas. Period. There is no grand American Tradition that will come down from heaven in a fiery pillar and save us from the avarice of leftists and their godforsaken dystopia of neo-Marxist death squads and overlords. The tyranny that we fear is a tyranny which was with us when this nation was founded, because it is a tyranny which is endemic and implicit in all governments because it is the very essence of government. All governments become tyrannical because government is tyranny, because government is Authority, and Authority is force. My philosopher compadre John Immel said this—“authority is force”—and it continues to be the single greatest truth of government, ever, anywhere, of all time. It is, perhaps, and certainly as far as I am concerned, the only thing you really need to know about the subject,
As hard as it may be to admit it, tyranny is the only possible outcome of the American politcal premise. Government, no matter how small, will grow into tyranny as a child grows into a man. Because fundamentally there is no difffence. At root they are the exact same thing.