The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 17, 2014

Values Conservatism and the American Obsession with Equality
Paul Gottfried - 02/11/08

In my latest book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, I use the term “baseless conservatism” to refer to the deficiencies of an American Right without a firm and distinctively rightist character. Part of the reason for this oddity is that the American Right operates without the social base of such classical European political movements as socialism, bourgeois liberalism, and classical conservatism; indeed our self-described and sui generis conservatism prides itself on its adherence to universals—that is, to values that have nothing to do with traditional nations or communities or particular classes.

In one notably impassioned attack on Patrick J. Buchanan several years ago, Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review, extolled the conservatism of our country for its rejection of Buchanan’s appeal to national and social loyalties. Ponnuru’s companions-in-arms are the true universalists, he maintained, because the essence of their conservatism is a moral commitment to “human rights.” Similarly, American movement conservatives are fond of depicting themselves as the vanguard of a crusade for “values” and as standing against the assembled forces of relativism on the left. The problem with this posture is that the values that soi-disant conservatives uphold have steadily changed—and in a leftist direction. Typical of this process has been their lurching leftward over the last forty years away from a defense of inequalities and inherited hierarchies—as defended in the works of, among many others, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford—to the more recent glorifications of equality as a “conservative value.”

But do those whom the movement conservatives target really suffer from a lack of values? Hillary Clinton promotes much the same social positions as does Rudolph Giuliani, whom a number of conservatives in the very recent past were happy to support as a presidential candidate. On the policy think-tank right, “values” have been allowed to function as a kind of adornment for candidates and policies that serve neoconservative geopolitical ends. The preferred values of anti-abortion activists or the opponents of gay marriage, who are mostly traditional Christians, are highlighted, marginalized or discarded depending on the shifting political and electoral interests of the movement’s leadership and financial backers. It is likewise misleading to portray feminists, multiculturalists, or advocates of abortion on demand as people bereft of values. Such partisans simply appeal to their own interpretations of fairness, equality, and individual freedom.

The specter of “value relativism” often seems to be nothing more than a label that movement conservatives pull out to rally the faithful. But my problem with the electoral campaigns waged against “relativism” goes beyond this superficiality to a deeper intellectual objection. It is not at all clear that relativists exist, outside of a rather limited academic coterie; and even here one is dealing with a self-contradictory position, since garden-variety relativists give weight to certain values even while pretending to treat all values as equally valid or invalid. They are, in a nutshell, instrumental relativists who are working to subvert or shatter someone else’s beliefs for the sake of their own. If one scratches such would-be relativists, one usually finds dissembling advocates of equality who rage against our inherited civilization for not going far enough to implement their favored value. Because of their implicit egalitarianism, such relativists have something in common, conceptually, with those who propose equality as a “conservative value.”

Ponnuru’s The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life makes the case that abortion rights conflict with the ideal of equality. This is intended as a serious charge; for as someone who embraces the convictions of Harry Jaffa, Ponnuru asserts that equality for all persons, even embryonic ones, is the underlying principle of the American founding and political experience. Whether or not one endorses his objections to abortion rights advocates, it is revealing that it is as a genuine egalitarian that Ponnuru opposes a key feminist right. He is launching a critique of the feminists from inside their value universe, chastising others of his ilk for not being consistent in their application of the principle of equality.

One finds a similar kind of thinking in the tirades against the “state” often unleashed by libertarians. Here, “liberty” has no social-historical frame of reference. It is an absolute right, providing it does not conflict with other exercises of individual autonomy, to be enjoyed by individuals who are encouraged to actualize themselves by appropriating and consuming. “Liberty” is viewed as a right inhering equally in all individuals, regardless of where or when they happen to be found. These kinds of pure libertarians are in the grips of a leftist mindset. They embrace both abstract universals and the concept of self-defining, equal individuals who are attached to propositions rather than to corporate or national entities. These beliefs have been historically characteristic of the Left.

Lest one mistake my intention, let me make clear that I am not praising without qualification the Right, in all of the forms it has taken throughout history. The Right has been booted out of the public conversation for reasons that many undoubtedly hold to be quite good. One might believe that promoting the ideal of equality through public administration and public education is something desirable and that the attempt to stand athwart this tendency is insensitive and unjust. Indeed, the past (we are told by our opinion formers and policy enforcers) has bequeathed to us a staggering multitude of unjust relations and insensitive sentiments; and it is absolutely necessary that all available means be used to raise the esteem or to liberate the victims of yesteryear. The now-popular images of Muslim women being ground down by patriarchy serves to remind us—so I have been told—of what life in the West was once like, before scientific government and public educators rode to the rescue. This is not even to mention the many other evils unrelated to sexism, such as racial and ethnic inequalities, which would still be plaguing us were it not for the coercive actions undertaken by government.

George Will regularly emerges (usually on the anniversary of some civil-rights landmark event) to remind us how much we have improved morally as a nation since the 1950s, when Will and I were growing up. Although I for one have not noticed this qualitative leap forward in human consciousness, today’s television-addicted, publicly educated Americans, even more than their Western European counterparts, would be more inclined to agree with Mr. Will than with me. Nor would I score many points by focusing on the downside of what Will celebrates, by noting the assault on what used to be family and authority structures or the recitation of politically correct slogans that now passes for history study in the U.S. and elsewhere. Least of all would anyone, save for exceedingly small groups of right-leaning intellectuals, be interested if I tried to explain that Western marriage did not typically show the pattern of outrageous oppression that we see practiced in Islamicist groups. The assignment of different social roles to women and men in the Western past, and certainly in the U.S. before the feminist movement triumphed, was not exactly a foreshadowing of life under the Taliban. Not all alternatives to state-enforced gender egalitarianism require women to wear burkas or to be stoned for suspected adultery. Part of the Left’s success can be traced to its control of the narratives centered on the Western past, and most particularly the recent past. Unless we can articulate a counternarrative of an alternative civilizational past and the reasons that we should continue to identify with that heritage, we must truly prepare for the worst. The Left and their tolerated opposition will continue to move from one victory to the next.

This problem of recovery brings me back to our worst obsession: the pursuit of equality. While this ideal can be defended as a certain spiritual instruction—e.g., in the teaching of the Apostle Matthew that the Kingdom of God is in all of us—in its modern secular form the ideal of equality has either absorbed or poisoned other moral and social teachings. Despite the extermination of perhaps as many as a billon people in Communist countries, undertaken precisely in order to level and homogenize their populations, our intellectuals and journalists were, and are, far less bothered by these rogue governments than they were, and are, by the actions of certain authoritarian generals. Our elites are especially hard on those who killed far fewer people than the Communists but who nurtured capitalist economies or who simply failed to launch massive programs aimed at homogenizing the human condition.

In our country, and even more in some European societies, almost any degree of meddling with the family and churches by the government can be justified and rendered acceptable as a response to some perceived inequality. What is alarming about all of this is that there seems to be no reasonable limit on this quest for equality—or on the willingness of democratic subjects to put up with social reconstruction efforts intended to apply this ideal more fully. The enduring nature of this concern about equality leads the political class increasingly to enhance its power in a way that is magnificently described by Thomas Hobbes in is his discussion of the appetite for acquisition. Thus, the new sovereigns in our democratic Leviathan—bureaucrats, state educators, behavior-modifying judges—gain ever more control from an acquiescent public.

A simple illustration of what I mean is the appeal to “equality of opportunity” in order to enact “equality of result,” a transformation that has characterized the American civil-rights movement. Here the first goal elides inevitably into the second, both contextually and deductively. Within sixteen months of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, quotas had been introduced in the workplace and education in the name of racial equality. A few years afterwards, the same policy was expanded for the benefit of women, Amerindians, nonwhite Hispanics, and Aleuts; and so admirable did this beau geste seem that recently in Turkey the leftist opposition appealed confidently to the American example in establishing quotas there for women in both parliament and the workplace.

Such an expansion of equality of opportunity into compensatory favoritism should not surprise anyone. It is hard to conceive of any other outcome once we charge administrators with the duty of equalizing everyone’s opportunities. In the U.S. the adoption of such a policy has ceased to be even controversial. It is assumed to be integral to our “democracy.” Democracy is no longer about self-conscious nations or communities practicing self-government. It is about socialization that instills in us gratitude for governmentally orchestrated equality. Note that equality of opportunity means in our modern democratic setting something radically different from Napoleon’s decision, when he welcomed bourgeois and peasant talents into the French professions and officer class. Carrières ouvertes aux talents is an old bourgeois maxim that is not concerned with leveling but with integrating skills and capacities into a traditional nation-state. We are now beyond that form of government praised by nineteenth-century European constitutionalists, which was a truly mixed regime incorporating the educated and propertied. We are now in the age of democratic social engineering, which interprets inclusiveness as a therapeutic good reserved for authorized victims of historic discrimination.

Those who would resist this age and its obsession with equality have the indispensable task of trying to analyze without partisan prejudice that which exists politically and dominates culturally and educationally. And they must approach this work as outsiders—that is, as critics of a value consensus that the political and cultural elites of all parties now treat as sacrosanct.

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