The United States of Nothing

What are “Western Values”?

Today America supposes that it is an arbiter of western values. But the truth is that in every sphere of life, American values have diverged sharply from the rest of the West. And if we examine the difference carefully, what’s really striking is this: the rest of the West has values – but America has none at all.

How can that be? Values aren’t what I want for myself. Those are preferences. Values are what I believe everyone should have. Now that the difference between values and preferences is clear, let’s examine America vs the west a little.

– the rest of the west values human life. Everyone has a right to healthcare. In the US, no one does. The value of life doesn’t exist.

– you might think: well, America at least values money. You are wrong. The rest of the west values money. Everyone has a right to welfare, income, support. In the US, no one does, for long. Even the social value of money doesn’t really exist in America.

– the rest of the west values safety. What’s the most basic kind? A roof over your head. Everyone has the right to housing in other rich countries. In the US, they don’t. The value of safety doesn’t exist.

I can go on. Surely you see the trend. The rest of the West values dignity, the sanctity of the body, peace, safety, justice. It embeds those values into rights offered by great institutions. Only America fails to share such genuine, lived values. So what does it value? We’ll come to that.

First, let’s ask: what do these values mean, create, enable? What’s their purpose? If by “the West” we mean something like “romance language speaking nations that are the inheritors of Athens”, then we must look at what the Greeks, the founders of this whole project of western civilisation, hoped to achieve.

For them, one aim was paramount: a genuinely good life, eudaimonia. And achieving it for all depended critically on valuing the world’s first real public goods: the square, the Lyceum, the polis, and so on, that enabled all to develop the virtues a good life was made of. Hence, a person only interested in money – and not in eudaimonia – was literally an “idiot”, someone uninterested in living genuinely well.

Now that we’ve contrasted America and the rest of the west, let’s ask: who is the idiot, the one uninterested in eudaimonia, and who is the real inheritor of the West? To me it seems crystal clear that the Greeks would have called America an idiot. And applauded the rest of the west for valuing genuinely good lives enough to give everyone a chance to live them.

Now I’m going to make a subtler point, so stick with me. When we say “Western values”, what do we mean? It’s a misnomer. The central innovation of the West, the Athenian inheritance was the idea of values. When they discovered you need a square and Lyceum for good lives to to flourish, they discovered that values underpin virtues. In the modern context: Giving people education, healthcare, and so on, enables them to act virtuously.

Now America believes only one thing, really, because we’ve shown it doesn’t have values: precisely the opposite of what the Athenians did – that denying people basics will lead them to virtue. In that truest sense, America isn’t Western at all.

So what is it? It is its own little island. An island of nothing. America was born in nihilism, and its ending because of nihilism. It began with the belief that some deserve nothing, and only a chosen few deserve anything. It has never had, developed, matured into, real values.

That is a painful truth to face. Yet it also tells us: if America wants to join the prosperous, thriving West, now, like any other poor country, it must develop real values. Not just preferences of self interest, but deep, real, humane values that enable all to live genuinely good lives.


July 2017