All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 2002

The Virtue of Prosperity

D'Souza Examines Arguments Against Capitalism

Free Press • 2001 • 284 pages • $26.00 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

The Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter famously predicted that capitalism, in so greatly magnifying man’s productive capability, would sow the seeds of its own downfall by creating an idle class of malcontents who would undermine the philosophical foundations of the economic order built on individual rights. The first part of his argument has certainly come true. Thanks to capitalism, more people now live comfortably than ever before, and by a wide margin. Schumpeter was also right in predicting the rise of grumblers who would incessantly find fault with the material progress of capitalism. We don’t yet know whether they will in fact bring about the downfall of the free-market system, but they’re working at it.

Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Virtue of Prosperity examines the arguments made by both the socialist critics of capitalism who can’t abide inequality and the cultural conservative critics who don’t like the effects of capitalism on the values they hold dear. D’Souza has a knack for grabbing hold of hot issues and saying sensible things about them—his earlier books Illiberal Education and The End of Racism being cases in point. He has done so again here, subjecting the rhetoric of leftist and rightist critics to penetrating scrutiny.

The author sees the conflict as dividing along these lines: There are those who are pleased with the fabulous prosperity and progress brought about by the workings of capitalism, want more of it, and harbor neither resentment that others have gotten richer than they have nor worry that prosperity is somehow undermining “deeper” values. D’Souza calls them The Party of Yeah. On the opposite side are those who are upset about the success of capitalism. D’Souza calls them The Party of Nah. The Party of Nah then divides into leftist and rightist branches as noted above. The book is an attempt to find out just what the various factions are saying, and whether we should take to heart any of the Party of Nah attacks. (The answer D’Souza gives is no, but with some equivocation.)

George Gilder is a good example of a Party of Yeah member. D’Souza writes, “In Gilder’s view there is virtually no downside to the proliferation of technological capitalism.” Its prospects for improving the human condition are breathtaking. In Gilder’s own words, “The new age of intelligent machines will enhance and empower humanity, making possible new ventures and new insights. It will relieve man of much of his most onerous and unsatisfying work. It will enlarge his freedom. It will diminish despots and exploiters.” To those who scoff at such claims, D’Souza replies that capitalism and its technology have a mighty impressive performance record. Look back over the last century and you will see accomplishments that were laughed at as impossible by most people. All are attributable to Party of Yeah endeavors.

Sneering in derision, however, are the likes of Studs Terkel, an old leftist grumbler who can only see that some people are getting exceedingly wealthy. “But what pisses me off is what happens to the people at the other end of the line,” he says. “People are struggling to make ends meet in this country. Out there in the world millions are scrounging for something to eat. Is it right that so many people are starving while these guys have more money than God?” Lines like that still get you invited to give talks on college campuses, but should sensible people worry about the allegedly expanding wealth gap? D’Souza thinks not, pointing out that capitalism has single-handedly made it possible for millions of poor people around the globe to lead longer, healthier lives. In his estimation, it’s silly to complain about relative wealth as long as absolute wealth is rising for nearly everyone.

The anti-capitalist sentiment from the conservatives isn’t based on inequality, but rather on the supposedly harmful impact capitalism has on social morality. D’Souza quotes Gertrude Himmelfarb: “Economically, our society is better off. But in many ways we are a much poorer society than we used to be. There are other forms of poverty than economic poverty, you know.” He doesn’t have much sympathy for this line of attack either, which he finds rooted in the philosophy of antiquity that the principal task of the state was the promotion of virtue. Critics like Himmelfarb, William Bennett, and Robert Bork complain that capitalism, while providing a high standard of living, also provides bad things and subverts morality. D’Souza doesn’t see that there is anything the state can do about that without unleashing worse problems. Besides, he observes, techno-capitalism is making it possible for parents to spend more time with their children, allowing them to promote the values they think important.

The one issue where the author expresses some Nah-ism is in his discussion of the possibility of bioengineering human beings. He wants to ban it, writing, “when we start remaking human beings, then I think we have crossed a new and perilous frontier.” D’Souza’s thoughts here strike me as far from convincing, but they should not deter one from taking up this sprightly book on one of the key intellectual battlegrounds of the 21st century.

George Leef is book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.