The Moral Perils Of Permanent Plenty


Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence

By Dinesh D'Souza

Free Press -- 284pp -- $26

Every once in a great while, perhaps once or twice a century, the established economic order is overturned as a result of technological advances and organizational innovation. From the 1760s to 1830s, steam engines and textile mills propelled the Industrial Revolution. A second industrial revolution of 1880 to 1930 was shaped by the spread of electric power and mass production. Today, the Internet and knowledge-based businesses are combining to create a New Economy.

Such rapid economic changes also reshape culture, politics, and everyday notions of right and wrong. An enthusiasm for the methods of science and for the very idea of progress gained widespread acceptance during the first Industrial Revolution. And it's no coincidence that the early 20th century movement toward mass democracy gained momentum with the spread of mass production. What about now? How will the Information Economy change the rules of the political game, influence visions of a just society, and shape new ethical dilemmas? These are the ambitious matters Dinesh D'Souza, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, struggles with in The Virtue of Prosperity. The author asks the right questions, and I found many of his answers provocative. Yet by the time I finished this book, I was deeply disappointed.

D'Souza doesn't doubt that there is a dazzling New Economy, reflecting the global triumph of capitalism, the rise of the digital entrepreneur, and the spread of the Internet. Unlike many other New Economy books, his doesn't dwell too much on the forces propelling what he calls "techno-capitalism." Instead, he concentrates on fathoming the implications for American society--the New Economy's epicenter.

As D'Souza sees it, we are experiencing two fundamental breaks with the past. For one, thanks to techno-capitalism's unprecedented wealth-generating capacity, we are entering an era of permanent prosperity. "The problem of scarcity, which has plagued our species from the dawn of mankind, is vanishing before our eyes," says the author. What's more, D'Souza believes, biotechnology will soon change everything. It will make it possible for mankind to eliminate disease, and, on the dark side, to create "designer children." We may even merge with computers. "It is the ability to will our future as a species--a power conferred by these new technologies--that separates our predicament from that of every generation that has come before us," he says.

These two developments--universal prosperity and genetic engineering--will, he says, shape America's moral dilemmas and political struggles in the coming years. Traditional divisions between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, will dissolve as citizens instead coalesce either as techno-capitalism optimists or pessimists. Some questions before them: Is life losing its meaning with affluence? Is it right to eradicate childhood diseases through genetic engineering? How about tweaking the genetic code to reduce violent impulses?

This is undeniably heady stuff. And, much like the books that followed the cloning of Dolly the sheep, D'Souza offers some provocative nuggets. Yet this book is disappointing on many levels. Many of the author's claims are too broad. Few economists, including ardent New Economy boosters, would endorse his vision of the end of scarcity. And his willingness to hurtle so far into the biotech future, along with vagueness about how long it will take for dramatic developments to occur, makes one question his prognostication.

The way in which D'Souza handles time is also worrisome. He uses long-run forecasts to dismiss short-term concerns--and vice versa--even though it's unclear what he means by short-term and long-term. For example, he asserts that inequality is a short-term phenomenon, overcome by the "egalitarian benefits of technological capitalism [that] are achieved only in the long run." As John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, in the long run we are all dead.

Even less convincing is D'Souza's blithe dismissal of government as little more than a spectator and a nuisance in the New Economy. Its proper role is to keep taxes low, monetary policy stable, and borders open, he says. "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," he writes. Really? That's not what most people who went to the voting booths on Nov. 7 believed. Government is vital to promote global environmental progress, intellectual property rights, financial stability, international trade, and more. And in a democracy struggling over such troubling questions as genetic engineering, government must be a vital player.

Indeed, technology comes across as an unstoppable force. D'Souza seems to think little can be done to prevent some horrifying developments other than offering exhortations to private virtue. Yet Americans have been willing and able to restrain technology, from containing nuclear power to shunning eugenics. But D'Souza doesn't like such a balanced approach--nor any kind of subtlety. His is a world of extremes.

Don't get me wrong. D'Souza has picked the right topic. The New Economy will shape us in unexpected ways. It's just that his discussion falls far short of his ambitions.

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