Thu, Aug 23, 2001 - Page 9 News List

The perilous dictatorship of values

When states start enforcing values instead of laws, the basis of Western civilization comes under threat

By Robert Spaemann

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

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. Countries 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.

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