National Post -- January 27, 2001
The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
by Ian Garrick Mason
Free Press, 254pp, $38.50
On the cover of The Virtue of Prosperity is a little picture of a man in a suit, holding a huge coin. The man is staring into it: searching for his reflection, perhaps, or contemplating the meaning of some newly acquired fortune. Or maybe he's just trying to decide what to do with his last dollar before heading down to the food bank. Indeed, there's nothing like an apparently unending series of stock market corrections to make the average investor rethink his or her assumptions about the nature of wealth, luck, and merit. This makes Dinesh D'Souza's new book especially well timed.
According to D'Souza, the rise of the New Economy has cast into shadow traditional debates between left and right over central planning and the free market. Such debates are being superceded by an emerging conflict between what he calls the Party of Yeah and the Party of Nah. The Party of Yeah believes that technological capitalism brings greater levels of prosperity and freedom to all. The Party of Nah encompasses not only leftists who argue that capitalism's benefits are unequally and unfairly distributed, but also rightists who argue these same benefits undermine society's sense of community and morality.
It's not a terribly deep or original insight, but D'Souza's strength lies more in how he presents it. For the first two-thirds of the book, he is content to let the combatants speak for themselves. From the Party of Yeah, D'Souza interviews people like Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard, and Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Novell. Each of them offers colourful, passionate opinions on the New Economy and on the debate itself: "It's a religious war ... but we are going to win because we have a vision of change and of redemption," declares economics and technology writer George Gilder, using the language of a person who believes that history has a winning side, and that he's on it.
Party of Yeah partisans emphasize the New Economy's remarkable ability to reward innovation, to shake up inefficient bureaucracies, and to liberate human beings from mundane constraints like capital, connections or pedigree. According to them, the New Economy's real currency of exchange is ideas, and merit is the sole determinant of success.
(On the topic of merit, D'Souza's observes that it's no longer the labouring masses who work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Rather, it's the successful members of the New Economy overclass, often motivated more by competitiveness and the drive to create value than by old-fashioned love of money.)
The Party of Nah, meanwhile, feels compelled to ask awkward questions. What role does luck play in all of this wealth acquisition? Is it really only merit that drives success, or do social connections have a big influence? Political scientist Robert Frank focuses on inequality, arguing that "it is natural for us to evaluate our circumstances relative to those around us. The problem is not one of absolute but relative deprivation. But that doesn't make it any less real." D'Souza also interviews environmentalists like Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, and biologist E.O. Wilson, to present concerns about technological capitalism's effect on nature and our connection to it.
Other issues are raised by critics on the right. Some still argue, as Daniel Bell did in his groundbreaking 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that capitalism breeds wealth, wealth breeds consumerism, and consumerism undermines the work ethic that drives capitalism. Others see the dissolution of family and community in the radical expansion of alternatives that are available: we're wealthier, so we don't need to put up with our parents anymore; we can choose where to live, what hobbies to pursue and what discussion groups to frequent.
Across this wide territory, D'Souza acts, in effect, like an intellectual tour guide, sitting next to us in the Land Rover and helpfully pointing out the main features of the landscape. But for D'Souza, it's the Party of Yeah that ultimately has the stronger case.
To prove this, he returns to the origins of the conflict, finding its source in the birth of capitalism and modern science. D'Souza shows just how fundamental was modern civilization's break with the ancient and medieval worlds. The ancients saw trade as a contemptible occupation, and science as a matter for contemplation, not application. Society, it was believed, should be founded on man's highest virtues, like courage, or justice. In almost polar contrast to this, the modern world uses vices like greed and self-interest as its bricks and mortar. However, it civilizes these impulses, D'Souza writes, "just as marriage civilizes lust." Using the tools of science and trade, modern man seeks to better himself in this life, rather than prepare for the next.
This philosophy has worked; we are more free and more wealthy than our ancestors could have possibly imagined. The Party of Nah can present no serious alternative to this system. But as D'Souza admits, the modern experiment did not promise a definition of the good life -- it only promised the means to it. Increasingly, our affluence is leaving us faced with an age-old question: what's it all for? For guidance, D'Souza suggests we turn to the ancient thinkers: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Dante. After all, they spent a great deal of time thinking about just this question.
This is sound advice, for as the power of our civilization grows, philosophical questions are becoming more important, not less. D'Souza argues that technology has been systematically removing limits in our lives, and that emerging technologies -- genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence -- promise such unlimited power that they may end up changing the very nature of our humanity.
D'Souza singles out genetic engineering, which may soon be used not simply to cure diseases, but to enhance our children in ways limited only by our whims. His argument is that to willfully design children to suit the wishes of their parents is to reduce them to the status of owned objects. D'Souza reflects on the pre-Civil War debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, in which Douglas argued that freedom of choice meant states should be free to make up their own minds about slavery, while Lincoln countered that freedom has no meaning at all if it allows one man to enslave another. D'Souza convincingly uses Lincoln's argument to assert the need for laws to constrain our free choice in the matter of genetic engineering, so that we are not tempted to constrain forever the free choices and identity of our own offspring.
Disappointingly, D'Souza concludes his book without addressing the potentially even deeper implications of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Granted, we can't expect D'Souza to have all the answers, but the reader still suspects this particular knight chose the weakest of three dragons, and having defeated it, rode off into the sunset -- leaving the rest of us to deal with the ones still circling our village.
D'Souza leaves us with the reminder the real monster in Mary Shelley's book is Dr. Frankenstein himself, who tries to become godlike by recreating life. This is the same power that technology will soon place in our collective hands. It is not the technology we must fear and confront, therefore, but ourselves.