The Virtue of Prosperity by Dinesh D'Souza
The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
by Dinesh D’Souza
Free Press. 284 pp. $26.00
The opening scene of Dinesh D’Souza’s new book finds the author at a lavish party in Silicon Valley for the web company Inktomi. As the music blares and guests take turns climbing a faux mountain (the invitation suggested dressing in “whatever you wear to climb to the top”), D’Souza eavesdrops on the animated conversations of the twenty- and thirty-year-olds in attendance. Many are newly minted multimillionaires—one, in fact, is a billionaire—but money, D’Souza recognizes, is just part of what excites them. As one party-goer says of his peers: “They’re revolutionaries, man. They are opening the doors to a whole new outlook, a new way of life.”
D’Souza agrees. But he wonders what sort of values will inform this “age of techno-affluence.” Indeed, for D’Souza—a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose previous books have grappled provocatively with political correctness on college campuses, race, and the Reagan presidency—the moral dimension of this revolution is perhaps the most important. As he sees it, there is no more urgent task ahead for American society than figuring out “what place technology and wealth should occupy in our pursuit of the good life.”
The U.S. economy of recent years has created, D’Souza writes, the first “mass-affluent society” in human history. More than half the population now owns stock—up from just 10 percent twenty years ago—and even the country’s poorest citizens are “better housed, better clothed, and better fed than average Americans were half a century ago.” Moreover, the technological innovation that has done so much to generate this wealth shows no sign of abating. Through further advances in genetics and other fields, it actually holds out the historic possibility of transforming “our very nature as human beings.”
The loudest cheerleaders for this “technocapitalism” are members of what D’Souza calls the “Party of Yeah.” These “daring entrepreneurs,” “innovators,” and “doers” are zealously upbeat about the future, believing that technological progress needs no justification beyond success in the marketplace, and that “if something can be done it should be done.” Their ranks comprise high-tech pioneers like Steve Jobs of Apple Computer and Larry Ellison of Oracle; gurus of the “new economy” like the writers James Glassman and George Gilder; and such “techno-utopians” as the scientists Raymond Kurzweil and Lee Silver, who believe, as D’Souza puts it, that “the history of our species [will be] written with the epitaph that we tried out humanity, found it wanting, and opted for something better.”
These hard-driving optimists are opposed—in D’Souza’s scheme of things—by the “Party of Nah.” What unites the members of this disparate group—a partial roster includes the economic doomsayer Robert Schiller, the social-democratic political theorist Michael Walzer, the ecologist Wendell Berry, and conservative scholars like the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and the philosopher Leon Kass—is their deep-seated anxiety about the future of our technology-dominated world. Whether concerned about social equality, the environment, or traditional values, these critics fear that, in Kass’s words, “we are being led down new paths by people who have no moral sense of what is at stake.”
For D’Souza, the looming struggle between the proponents and critics of technocapitalism is no passing phase; rather, it is the culmination of long-standing tensions in Western civilization. Devoted to community, virtue, and beauty, the Party of Nah, he believes, is descended from, among others, Plato, the Bible, the Stoics, and Confucius. The Party of Yeah, by contrast, is the heir of modern thinkers like Hobbes, Bacon, Locke, and the American founders—men who set out to create societies that would be rich and secure rather than noble and pious.
Though D’Souza himself is clearly more sympathetic to the Party of Yeah—at one point he calls its opponents a bunch of “winners” and “losers”—he describes his own goal as finding a way “to help heal the social divisions caused by the new technological capitalism.” He wishes to chart a middle course, heeding the wisdom of the past while at the same time taking advantage of the life-enhancing marvels made possible by new technology.
Thus, on the morally fraught question of manipulating human nature itself, D’Souza is quick to reject what he calls the “techno-Nietzschean” effort to create a genetically or cybernetically superior “post-human.” Nor, he maintains, should parents be allowed to indulge their whims by engineering “designer” children. At the same time, however, D’Souza looks forward to the day when cloning will be available to couples incapable of having children on their own, and gene therapy will be used to cure birth defects in the womb and perhaps even to improve below-average height and IQ.
Beyond such particulars, D’Souza believes that the Party of Nah, for all its justifiable concern about the loss of community and reverence in our technological world, has overlooked the moral possibilities of the new affluence. Creativity and enterprise, he argues, will provide us with powerful means for protecting the environment; unprecedented wealth will give us the financial resources to rebuild decaying churches and schools; laptop computers, cell phones, and the Internet will allow working parents to stay home with their children. Far from destroying our respect for the deeper things in life, D’Souza suggests, the high-tech economy will give us the leisure we need to explore the very truths proclaimed by the Party of Nah.
The Virtue of Prosperity is an entertaining book, filled with lively argument and reportage and written in a brisk, approachable style. More significantly, D’Souza has raised issues of undeniable importance, particularly in describing the extravagant ambitions of many members of the technological-entrepreneurial class.
Those ambitions, as it turns out, received a rude shock in the period since D’Souza completed his book. With the plunge in the NASDAQ market, high-tech companies that once seemed—and believed themselves to be—invincible have seen their fortunes dramatically reversed (stock for the web company Inktomi, whose party D’Souza attended in late 1999, has traded of late for as little as $11 a share, having been valued at well over $200 a share less than a year earlier).
If our recent level of techno-affluence is not necessarily here to stay, however, the moral conundrums that it has presented certainly are. It is thus all the more unfortunate that D’Souza’s book is so superficial in so many respects. His chatty, even flippant, tone too often undermines his claim to seriousness. And his elaborate intellectual pedigrees for the Parties of Yeah and Nah not only muddle his treatment of present-day issues but border at times on the absurd, with Socrates thrown into the same camp as a bearish Wall Street analyst and Thomas Jefferson cast as the ally of a cyberneticist who wants to transcend “the mere accident of being human.”
Nor, contrary to what D’Souza suggests, does it seem the least bit likely that these two “parties” will soon replace our present political alignments; the fact that Greenpeace and the Christian Coalition share some concerns about the excesses of biotechnology companies hardly makes them permanent allies. But then, the real world of politics rarely intrudes upon D’Souza’s account. Confident as he is that most of the problems posed by techno-affluence will largely work themselves out in the private choices we make, he seems to believe they require no serious attention from political leaders and no new thinking to replace the ideologies and parties that he declares obsolete. As he writes toward the end of the book, commenting on the then-impending 2000 election, “if the new President changed into his pajamas every afternoon and took a long nap, like Calvin Coolidge, this would probably be good for the market and good for the country.”
To say the least, however, it is difficult to reconcile this counsel of political complacency with some of the grave technological dangers so vividly painted by D’Souza himself. Public scrutiny and law-making are, to be sure, no panacea for the darker side of techno-affluence; but, together with the hard moral, scientific, and philosophical reasoning undertaken by skeptics like Leon Kass, they undoubtedly have a role to play in defending the very idea of human nature against those who would so readily sacrifice it to the god of progress.