The Virtue of Prosperity
The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
New York: The Free Press, 2000, 284 pp.
The tech-stock sector is a wasteland today, only a year after appearing invulnerable. There are economic lessons here that point to the folly of unsustainable, credit-fueled booms. But others want to draw moral lessons as well, as if the hand of justice is smiting all those cocky dot-com millionaires to show them that their good fortune was at odds with the common good.
Addressing this and related issues is Dinesh D’Souza, the journalist who skewered political correctness on campus in the 1980s. In The Virtue of Prosperity, he turns his attention to the world of commerce to consider whether massive increases in private wealth are compatible with classical ideals such as living virtuously and working to create the good society. His goal is to confront commonly held doubts about the moral merit of prosperity—and he does so with a breezy reporting style and a disarming command of philosophical issues.
D’Souza observes that the most vituperative assaults on capitalism recently have come not from economists but from artists, moralists, media figures, and cultural critics. They may admit that the free market is an engine of economic growth, but it has led us astray in other, more important ways. Thinkers from Left and Right—indeed, their critique is merging—claim that the market encourages greed, increases inequality, attacks religion, undermines family and community, defines moral deviancy down, and breeds dangerous technologies, among a thousand other complaints. Then, there is the general observation that economic growth is not the same as spiritual growth, and that the two may even work at cross purposes.
This thesis enters into the popular culture in myriad ways. Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, for example, chronicles the heroic "sacrifices" of the generation that came through the Great Depression and fought World War II—events which are said to have steeled them for leadership in the postwar era. The subtext of Brokaw’s book is that the 1990s generation, softened by bull markets and bulging bank accounts, cannot know the meaning of sacrifice for the common good and is therefore incapable of greatness or even personal goodness.
With the events that shaped the "Greatest Generation" long gone, two camps have formed in response to the longest period of economic growth in our century, says D’Souza. On one hand are those who cheer prosperity and markets and believe we’ve only begun to see how technology will transform our lives for the better (the Party of Yeah). In opposition are those who emphasize what we are losing in this economic and social transformation and who long for restoration of a lost ideal (the Party of Nah).
The author takes on the role of a roving sociologist who presents the arguments both ways, conceding good points and refuting bad ones along the way. At each stage in the argument, he offers interesting new twists on the old debate over the cultural consequences of capitalism. He concludes that prosperity brings social and even spiritual blessings that too casually are overlooked. He makes the case that it is possible for people to uphold ancient virtues in an advanced, capitalist society.
Profoundly misunderstanding the book’s purpose was a sneering review in the New York Times, which claimed that D’Souza begins and ends his investigation with a bias. In fact, D’Souza is clearly of two minds and finds himself troubled that so many thinkers he is supposed to respect—neoconservatives such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, agrarians like Wendell Barry, religious thinkers like Gary Bauer—have turned against commercial culture and the institutions that support it. D’Souza is making a personal statement when he says that "the moral divide over affluence and technology doesn’t just run between ideological camps; it runs through our own hearts."
Neither should his line of argument be confused with that of Virginia Postrel (The Future and its Enemies), whose thesis never travels far beyond the general claim that social change ("dynamism") is progress, whereas affection for the status quo or the past ("stasis") is regressive and dangerous. By way of correction, D’Souza says: "What we are witnessing is not just a clash between techno-optimists and pessimists." Besides, social change "has historically produced a lot of good things as well as a lot of bad ones." Neither is technological "progress" always good. "Were the discovery and manufacture of biological weapons that destroy the human nervous system ‘progress’?" he asks.
No, D’Souza is dealing with something as fundamental and substantive as the relationship between economic and moral ideals. Can fantastic levels of material prosperity be squared with the continuing need for spiritual and moral nourishment? Is it right that a 20-year-old entrepreneur can become hugely wealthy by creating one piece of software, while workers three times as old and far more personally disciplined still languish in jobs paying a low hourly wage? Is it true that the advance of technology can alienate us from cherished values of privacy, integrity, and humanity?
Others have dealt with these question, but D’Souza’s treatment is informed by the literature that advances the strongest arguments in defense of markets. Rather than caricaturing capitalists and the market system, he attempts a fair presentation of economic and moral realities. Whereas we often read about the pathologies of the rich, for example, D’Souza draws our attention to the pathologies of the poor, concluding that "virtue does not seem in overabundant supply in any socio-economic camp." The "overclass" is frequently denounced in the press, but our author demonstrates just how fluid the ranks of the super-rich really are. The intellectual class never tires of discussing "inequality," but our author observes that the passage of time in a market economy actually ends up distributing the blessings of innovation and improved health broadly throughout the population.
D’Souza draws on the work of George Gilder and Fr. Robert Sirico, who point out that many of the vices attributed to capitalism are actually human vices that would be present under any system. Moreover, the institutions of capitalism help curb human vice by insisting on service (that’s what capitalists must provide to make a profit), individual responsibility (losses in a market economy are born by risk-takers), and promise keeping (which is reinforced, e.g., by contracts and credit ratings).
As for the claim that capitalism leads to social breakdown, he considers the issue of working mothers, a cultural indicator that worries many conservative commentators who place the blame on excesses of familial acquisitiveness. D’Souza points out that one of the greatest benefits of affluence is that both spouses do not need to work. The richest areas of the country are more likely to have families with mothers who do not work and who, instead, devote themselves entirely to their children and to social causes. "Observing these mothers' relentless dedication to their children, it seems obvious that affluence has made the traditional family viable again," D'Souza writes.
It is also true of civic associations, which many writers say have declined because, for example, fewer people join bowling leagues. But while some forms of association have declined, writes D’Souza, others are thriving. Americans bowl less, but pool and golf are more popular than ever. Card parties are out, but cigar clubs are in. The PTA is out, but booster clubs and church attendance are in. D’Souza also has a thoughtful discussion of whether and to what extent the Web can be said to be a new source of community association.
What about the supposed loss of the old world and the old neighborhood where people lived in communion with God, nature, and one another? D’Souza ponders the real-world traits that built the "old community" and reduces them to three: ethnic identity, economic necessity, and the threat of conflict. The old community was not so much a product of free association, in his view, but rather a reflection of ever-present physical and material threats that caused small group of ethnically and religiously homogeneous people to band together for mutual self-protection. Because these threats have dissipated, so have the social structures that formed in response to them.
Consider again the "Greatest Generation" thesis: The horrible realities of poverty and war were not incidental but integral to its formation. Are the champions of the old community really willing to forego prosperity, longer life spans, and greater opportunities for war and poverty on the vague promise that our moral character will improve as a result? This is a monstrous hope.
On the topic of community solidarity, the book contains an interesting revelation: Sociologist Daniel Bell, the original member of the Party of Nah, apparently is no longer willing to defend his thesis that capitalism contains internal "contradictions" that lead to its undoing. "Morality has never been in very good shape," he tells D’Souza, and capitalist prosperity has not made it any worse. When D’Souza asks about Bell's famous thesis concerning the relationship between capitalism and social decay, Bell responds with visible annoyance: "Don’t talk to me about that. . . . It’s all bullshit."
This book was written and published during the height of the credit-fueled, high-tech boom, and it is probably the author’s misfortune that the dot-com mania collapsed just about the time the book appeared in stores. It is a measure of how quickly the fall took place that some of the reporting in this book published only months ago seems dated by events. And the reader can’t help but wonder whether subsequent events make a stronger case for the Party of Nah than D’Souza presents.
It’s true that the Party of Yeah was the first to make the silly claim that the New Economy had changed all the rules and repealed the business cycle. But D’Souza makes it clear (though not as clear as he might been) that his division between the camps is not simply between bull and bears. What’s more, D’Souza is properly skeptical toward the most outlandish claims, made only last year, that the market would never go down again. It’s also true that many of D’Souza’s best points are anticipated by Ludwig von Mises in Socialism (1922) and by Murray N. Rothbard in Power and Market (1970). D’Souza might have benefitted from a greater study of their work, which also would have made him even more wary of claims that a New Economy has replaced the old one.
The book has additional strengths that make up for this weakness, however. D'Souza blasts the notion of "equality of opportunity" in favor of equality in rules. He comes out against school vouchers, saying that the government shouldn’t be involved in education at all. And compared with his previous writings, he has toughened his stance against government interventions (e.g., his brief in favor of bio-tech is one of the best I’ve seen). Overall, this is one of the best popular treatments on the cultural meaning of prosperity to appear in many years.
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Jeffrey Tucker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president of the Mises Institute.