The Dictatorship of Values

Today, no one who is anybody speaks of “good” and “bad.” Instead, everyone speaks of values. Political parties debate values; constitutions are regarded as “systems of values.” We supposedly live in a time of decaying values, or perhaps of changing values. Even NATO, says British Prime Minister Tony Blair, should no longer be viewed as an alliance for the common defense of territories, but as an instrument for the defense – and expansion – of common values.

Yet talk about values is both trivial and dangerous. It is trivial because each community, even if committed to pluralism, must share certain things its members believe to be valuable. In particular, a parliamentary system based on elections and fundamental rights can only exist if the majority values the rights and obligations codified in democratic constitutions.

But a modern secular state is supposed to be based on law, not a set of substantive value commitments. Indeed, although a state committed to individual freedom demands obedience to its laws, it does not demand agreement with the values which form the basis of its legal system. This is the cornerstone of modern freedom, painfully won in the wake of the wars of religion. So talking about the state as a “community of values” is dangerous because it tends to undermine this secular principle in favor of a dictatorship of political convictions.

The Third Reich was a community of values. As a Volksgemeinschaft (national community), it valued nation, race, health – and these values always prevailed over law. As in Communism, the state was an agent of certain values; the party committed to them was therefore more important than the state.

Today’s Europe should stay clear of this dangerous alley. Citizens sometimes disobey the law because it conflicts with their values, and the state has a right to force them to live within the boundaries prescribed by its legal norms. But state power should not be allowed, in the name of promoting “values,” to try and prevent people from doing things not forbidden by law. Unfortunately, our states often do exactly that.

Take the appearance of the term “sect” on the political scene. In the new political parlance, communities are regarded as sects when they define themselves by common convictions which are not shared by the majority or the political establishment. Such minority communities are also characterized by a missionary approach to spreading their ideas, strong internal cohesion, hierarchical structure, and sometimes a charismatic leader.

These criteria are vague and sect membership is not prohibited by law in liberal states. But sects are included in official lists (at the discretion of those who claim a monopoly on interpreting public opinion) and they are repressed through informal pressure. They are subjected to state-surveillance, people are warned against them, and their members are denied state jobs.

Why do many states object to sects? Traditional Christians used this term to describe smaller communities that split from the church for reasons of creed or religious practice. In the context of a modern legal system, however, this term has no place. Any association of citizens based on common convictions must be regarded as equal, so long as it does not violate existing law or invite people to do so. Only when the state defines itself as a “community of values,” comparable to an established church that excludes non-believers, do hostile official attitudes toward “sects” become comprehensible.

Sects are not alone in feeling constrained because the state conceives of itself as a “community of values.” State institutions also ostracize certain political ideas, even if they conform to the constitution. In Germany, for example, public debate about immigration is evaded by associating anti-immigrant positions with violence against immigrants. The state, it seems, cannot risk democratic discussion.

Modern states, however, possess adequate force – the police – to act against violence perpetrated by native citizens against immigrants and immigrants against native citizens. Of course, there is nothing wrong about voluntary public demonstrations “against the right.” But if the state, including the German President, instead of enforcing the law against violators, organizes mass demonstrations against people who promote or condone, not violence but restrictive views on immigration, there is an imminent danger to the foundations of a liberal state.

The EU sanctions against Austria reveal another danger posed by the “community of values.” Refugee camps are attacked in Germany. Immigrants are harassed in Spain. Neo-Nazis demonstrate in Sweden. The Netherlands de facto rehabilitate the Nazi practice of euthanasia. Nothing like this happened in Austria. Indeed, French minorities can only dream of the status accorded the Slovene minority in Carinthia. Yet Austria was blacklisted by fellow EU members. Why? Because Austria was not politically correct – its politicians did not pay proper lip service to the “values” of the European community and did not refuse to form a government with a party whose politicians made a few irresponsible remarks.

The Kosovo war – waged in the name of “values” – offers more forebodings. No doubt, military intervention to prevent a people being expelled from their homeland served a “just cause.” But waging such a war was incompatible with international law, which recognizes as justified only those wars waged in self-defense or in defense of an ally’s territory. The problem with NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was that no attempt was made to carve out an exception to the prohibition on wars of aggression in international law. Instead, acting on behalf of the “community of values” was deemed more important than international law. When Communists and Nazis behaved this way we called it totalitarianism.

Ironically, the state’s commitment to values over law goes hand-in-hand with skepticism and relativism. This may sound strange, but a perverse inversion is at work here. The value held up by the modern state is tolerance. True tolerance is anchored in law and the conviction that individual dignity is independent of a person’s beliefs. When tolerance is incorporated within a “community of values,” however, the demand to respect the convictions of others turns into a demand not to have convictions with which others disagree. Having convictions becomes equated with intolerance and the demand for tolerance mutates into an intolerant, dogmatic relativism.

The values upheld by our civilization are thus not those of an objective structure and order of precedence, as postulated by the ancients, but are culturally relative, subjective valuations. Here is where the will to power, of which Nietzsche spoke, comes in. Those who set values have power; the struggle over values becomes a hidden struggle for power. So, in a “community of values,” look for hidden interests. If values are not objective but are our values, who is “we?” Who gains if this or that value is deemed higher? Who is the trustee of the highest values?

We must restore the separation between state power and the ability to set values for citizens. As Hobbes argued, you obey state power not because you are part of a “community of values,” but because maintaining domestic peace is valuable. The future Europe should be a legal community that accepts and protects smaller communities with their own values, but refrains from being itself a community of values.


Tr@nsit online, Nr. 25/2003
Copyright © 2003 by the author, Transit – Europäische Revue & Project Syndicate.
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