THE VIRTUE OF PROSPERITY: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
Free Press, 284 pages, $26
While the street cleaners of Silicon Valley strain to dispose of all the confetti from "pink slip parades," very few people will be inclined to give conservative journalist and think-tank denizen Dinesh D'Souza's The Virtue of Prosperity the hearing it deserves.
More's the pity, because it's a decent piece of journalism. The introduction, "Anthropologist in a Strange Land," begins, "To see the new world that is being born . …" Not quite "It was the best of times" or "In the beginning," but it'll do.
In the introduction, D'Souza details a visit to an average party in Silicon Valley in late 1999. Dress is casual, a public-relations company supplies the handful of women, most attendees are under 30, nobody spikes the punch, and, if overheard conversations are anything to go by, everybody has resolutely refused to leave work at home.
"The normal purpose of a party—drinking a lot, saying funny things, and meeting members of the opposite sex—seems entirely out of place here," he writes. He's fascinated that the whole old social hierarchy has been inverted. The "alpha males" that people are drawn to are "nerdy little chimps," one of whom confesses, "We're not interested in women." And, even more intriguing, when he questions these very rich people, they invariably tell him, "I'm not in it for the money."
Hearing billionaires disclaim profit-taking is a bit like hearing Orthodox Jews extol the joys of pork. Consequently, D'Souza decided to investigate this strange new world of the techno-affluent and its effect on the rest of society. The thing that makes his book more than an extended puff piece is that he works so hard to give equal time to the technorati's detractors. The technorati he dubs the "Party of Yeah" while their detractors are the "Party of Nah."
A slew of statistics with corresponding anecdotal evidence make the case that America is far and away the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. In the past 20 years, the gross domestic product has tripled from $3 trillion to $9 trillion, and D'Souza reminds us that in 1982 the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped below 800. A political conservative, D'Souza credits much of this success to President Ronald Reagan's tax policies and to emboldened American entrepreneurs.
Countless members of the Party of Nah reply that prosperity is great, as far as it goes, but what about the little guy? Isn't this "new economy" sparking a new inequality that amounts to an unbridgeable divide? The conservative wing of the Nah Party—represented by such diverse figures as Gertrude Himmelfarb and Pat Buchanan—has developed a critique that sounds very nearly biblical. If countless tech geeks get rich while hard-working laborers grasp at the wind and get paltry rewards for their efforts, is this mass accumulation of wealth such a good thing?
And doesn't this luxurious living both thumb its nose at the idea of merit and give a slight of hand to any connection to the transcendent? D'Souza says it's a debate worth having but laments that there is an imbalance of forces. In one corner is the Party of Yeah, consisting mostly of scientists and entrepreneurs who would rather choke on their own shoes than engage in a philosophical discussion. It is, he says with a bit of understatement, "generally an inarticulate group."
To wit, reading Forbes editor and Party of Yeah member in good standing Rich Karlgaard's column "is like watching an intelligent but highly wound up guy react in staccato outbursts to the world around him." The other corner is stocked with "policy wonks, theologians and academics," many of whom have their feet firmly planted in the clouds but can nevertheless string a cogent argument together.
Cultural Divide and Conquer
The rub is that the Party of Yeah will debate only when forced to (as in the case of the Microsoft lawsuit) and normally relies upon its manufactured prop of inevitability. Yeahsayers want to be seen as the unstoppable force of progress in the quest to better all of mankind, not as skinflint businessmen, hedonists, or mad scientists. And they are willing to pay nearly any fine and duck almost any debate to enforce this new stereotype.
D'Souza's best insight on this front is that Party of Yeah members "feel the force of the other side's position" and have "internalized many of the criticisms." Being the new rich, they worry about the effect of money on their children. They work far harder and longer than their contemporaries, even when they don't have to. And they incessantly harp on it not being about the money. Rather, their wares are presented as tools of liberation. He trots out Rockefeller's raison d'être—"The American people be damned. All I care about is my shareholders"—and judges that "today's rich would recoil from such insensitive remarks in horror."
He's probably right, but the question remains: Has the vast expansion of riches and material comfort come at the expense of the most vulnerable among us? To pare it down further, in what way is prosperity virtuous? Since most Yeahsayers won't stick up for themselves, D'Souza turns to the philosophers.
Greed Is Good for You
Contrary to free-market ideologues, "the free-market system has a real problem in answering the charge of avarice." D'Souza agrees with the Nahsayers that if capitalism is to justify itself, it will have to be a justification based on social consequences, not intrinsic worth. Is that a test that a market economy can bear?
Adam Smith answered yes. Though the Scottish scribbler ultimately came to advocate something approaching laissez faire, he did so with a canny understanding of human nature. In a feudal or mercantile society, a few nobles and merchants conspire to run the country in a way that benefits them. But make the government pull back and new merchants will be able to enter the marketplace and the older guard will either have to cut prices or close shop.
The new entrepreneurs are not motivated by a benevolent love for their neighbor but by a desire to keep food on the table. In the end, in theory, almost everybody benefits. Further, the desire to profit can lead people to swallow old animosities in pursuit of comfortable self-preservation. The argument can be stated thus: Capitalism civilizes greed as marriage civilizes lust.
According to D'Souza, the arrangement tends to work as advertised. To the "rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer" crowd, he points out that the poor are getting richer too and that the benefits of technology are slowly making America's poor the least needy lower class in the world. A majority of America's paupers have shelter, food, refrigerators, cheap public transportation, televisions, and many other amenities that make them rich in the eyes of most of the rest of the world.
Which is fine as far as it goes, but I found myself wondering: What values does D'Souza want to help the reader find? Granted, hard work is a virtue of sorts, and one can err just as much by coveting others' wealth as by being too greedy in the pursuit of one's own fortune. Granted also, wealth can have many beneficial effects as well as some nasty ones. But the best he can do on the values front is to say that when members of the Party of Yeah have turned to their intellectual ancestors, the classical liberals, to figure out what to do with all this newfound largess, "their intellectual mentors were silent."
"Here is where the Party of Nah has a vital contribution to make," D'Souza writes. "By reading good books, by taking them seriously as advancing claims about the good life, we can let the great thoughts of the ancient world speak to and transform us from within."
Perhaps many of the members of the Party of Yeah would agree. Or at least we know they wouldn't put up a fight.
Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor for Books & Culture and the sole proprietor of DeviantReadings.com.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Virtue of Prosperity is available at Christianbook.com.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has a detailed resume on Dinesh D'Souza,John M. Olin Research Fellow
Articles written by Dinesh D'Souza include:
The Moral Conundrum of Success — The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 10, 2000)
The Civilization of Selfishness — Forbes (Oct. 9, 2000)
The Moral Limits of Wealth — Forbes (Oct. 9, 2000)
Related Christianity Today articles include:
The Silicon Valley Saints | High-tech Christian executives are bringing biblical values into a mecca of Mammon. (July 27, 2001)
A Church for Internet Entrepreneurs | Grace Presbyterian had a Web site before it even had Sunday services. (July 27, 2001)
Silicon Values | High-tech culture's relentless critic discusses the 'religion' of Silicon Valley and its virtual extensions. (August 3, 2001)
God Ble$$ America (Editorial) | The rising economic tide floats all yachts. How should Christians help everyone else? (April 3, 2000)
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