The Corner

Beware the Semantic Infiltration of ‘Values’

The late Pat Moynihan, during his glory days as UN ambassador in the mid-1970s, highlighted the useful phrase “semantic infiltration” (he credited its origin to Fred Ikle), which he described as “the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality.” Moynihan noted especially how totalitarian regimes would advertise themselves as “liberation movements,” and warned further that “we pay for small concessions at the level of language with large setbacks at the level of practical politics.”

Moynihan’s observation came back to me as I read through Harvey Mansfield’s splendid essay on The Federalist in the latest issue of The New Criterion (subscription required). Writing with his usual subtle clarity, Mansfield notes the problem with the term “values” — a very popular term with social conservatives:

The Constitution is intended to make and maintain a free people, so it consists mostly of powers and procedures of institutions rather than goals that would tell a free people what it must do. That might seem to allow a people free to live by its “values.” I put the word in quotation marks to indicate disdain for a term that Publius, the shared pseudonym of the authors of The Federalist, never used and would have rejected. “Values” is a recent verbal noun indicating that your goals are yours or your group’s and exist by virtue of your valuing. They are particular to you and changeable when you change—for no reason you can cite. Having no reason behind them, values make no claim on the attention or agreement of others; one must either bow to them or get out of the way.

Allan Bloom made a similar point vividly in The Closing of the American Mind, noting the contrast between the uproar when Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and the lack of any such objection when in a later speech he described the U.S. and the U.S.S.R as two nations with “different values.” The point is, “values” is a term derived from philosophical subjectivism (specifically from Nietzschean nihilism), and as such makes a huge rhetorical concession to moral relativism. Conservatives shouldn’t use it. (This means, among other things, that the Traditional Values Coalition is wrongly and indeed even unhelpfully named, as is the Values Voters Summit.) 

I know this is an uphill fight that won’t get anywhere (ditto for my crusade against the similarly subversive and overused term “paradigm shift” — some other time perhaps), but “principles” is a better term to use. Mansfield succinctly hints at why in the sequel to the passage above:

The Federalist, however, is avowedly based on political science that has a solid foundation in a permanent and fixed conception of human nature.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He writes daily at Powerlineblog.com.

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