“Family values” is one of those political slogans that promises much and delivers nothing. It is a first cousin of such equally equally meaningless Bill-bennetisms as “Western values” and “Great Books.” The primary problem with such expressions is that they are, well, value-free.

At least in the case of “Great Books,” there arc actual books to lie about. When we come to the word “values,” however, it is generally a lie from start to finish. The primary and legitimate meaning of “value” in English is price or worth. I don’t know how “values” came to be used as a vaguer synonym for words like “principles” and “beliefs.” Perhaps the origin lies in the use of values as an aesthetic term, e.g., as in the color values of a painting, or it may have descended the slippery slope from 19th-century economics to Max Weber’s social theories to Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of every value.” Isaiah Berlin seems to have popularized the use of “values” in the dishonest modern sense. Berlin claims to have believed in “objective values”—which, logically speaking, should be a contradiction in terms: As any Misesian can tell you, value is the subjective importance you attach to something or, in crude terms, what you are willing to pay. But Berlin, playing upon the subjective and objective meanings, goes on to talk about the incompatibility of values and opens up the whole debate on “values.”

To understand the difference between a value and a principle, consider “family values.” When we speak of various moral principles of family life, we know what we mean: that, for example, abortion is homicide or that a man who divorces one woman and marries another is guilty of adultery. When, however, we speak of “family values,” we mean only that families are good things, that children are nice, and that stable marriages are worth having.

There is nothing judgmental about values. You have your values, I have mine, and so long as each of us sticks to his set of values, everything is—as we used lo say—”copacetic” (another meaningless word). In the global market place of prices and values, there is room for Western values and Eastern values, family values and rugged individualist values, and when we go down into that marketplace, we exchange ideas and presumably swap values. It is no doubt very convenient for politicians and undersecretaries of education who want to base their campaigns on “Christian values” without ever letting on what they actually stand for, but anyone who seriously uses “values” without the quotation marks is probably trying to pass counterfeit money in the marketplace of ideas.