Civilizing Greed

The Virtue of Prosperityby By Dinesh D'SouzaThe Free Press. 285p $26.00

Chapter by chapter, page by page, the reader of this book is engaged with a stimulating thinker who writes journalistically within disjunctive categories. He poses a formidable array of issues between the Party of Yeah, meaning economic optimists, cyberspace enthusiasts, [and] technoutopians, over against the Party of Nah, made up of cultural pessimists, environmentalists, social conservatives, egalitarians, religious critics of capitalism, and skeptics about technology. Dinesh D’Souza, who finds much to like in both parties, is a research scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and a former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House.

Many miles wide, but not that many fathoms deep, the material in this book draws on interviews with pioneers, practitioners, beneficiaries and critics of the New Economy, as well as from wide reading in scientific and popular books and articles dealing with the upcoming revolutions that promise to transform our very nature as human beings and possibly introduce a new species into the world, the posthuman.

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Forget about the Internet and wireless technology. There is another revolution that you should be worrying about that goes by several names: nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotic.... Basically it involves giving us as a species unprecedented power to control and transform nature, including our own human nature. We are now the objects of our own technology. The toolmaker has become the tool. Central issues in all of this, of course, are cloning and genetic engineering.

Somewhere deep inside D’Souza is a natural law philosopher trying to break out and speak up. His speech is not muffled, as the lively and loud style of this book attests. But it waffles between the arguments of the yeahs and the nahs as each tries to hasten or delay the debatable consequences of their competing ideas of progress. This author definitely enjoys the debate and provides a useful service by bringing it to the attention of the general reader. The reader would be better served, however, if D’Souza drew a clearer line to mark the points beyond which he thinks we simply must not go.

The book title’s assertion that prosperity is virtue rests, it would appear, on D’Souza’s moral argument for capitalism, namely, that it makes us better people because it puts our imagination and our efforts at the behest of others. Conceding that greed and selfishness are part of our human nature, the author notes that capitalism is able to channel them in such a way that their destructive power is minimized and they actually work to promote the common good. If you are not yet persuaded that capitalism produces both prosperity and virtue, read on.

Capitalism civilizes greed in much the same way that marriage civilizes lust. Indeed, the actual workings of capitalism do more than steer greed into a socially beneficial outlet; in a positive sense, capitalism encourages empathy, consideration and fair dealing with others. The reason is that to be successful, a businessman must anticipate the wants and needs of his customers, and if he wants his business to prosper he has to keep treating the customer relationship as special.

Now there’s the stuff of a good marriage! And there is more.

The capitalist has an edge in virtue over the politician and the clergyman: he has in practice done more to raise the standard of living of the poor than all the government and church programs in history. Although Bill Gates outscores Mother Teresa for having done more to eradicate poverty and suffering in the Third World, it does not follow, says D’Souza, that Gates deserves a higher heavenly perch than Mother Teresa.

Whether or not this book deserves a perch on your personal library shelf depends, in my view, on the extent to which you want to mix it up mentally with a provocative writer who needs to learn to hold both enthusiasm and hyperbole in check as he sorts through the issues that are critical for us all.

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