The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
By Dinesh D'Souza
The Free Press, 256 pp.

In his travels through the high-tech paradise of Silicon Valley, recounted in "The Moral Conundrum of Success," Dinesh D'Souza often sounds as discombobulated as Alice in Wonderland. The 25-year-olds the conservative social critic passes on the street are millionaires. Parties in Silicon Valley aren't places where people "drink a lot, say funny things, and meet members of the opposite sex"; they are chances to augment the size of one's bank account. The rich brats parading around the Valley don't seem that bright. Even D'Souza, whose first book, "Illiberal Education," savaged education in America for being too obsessed with identity politics, is struck by how few women and minorities there are. But though it seems like another world, Silicon Valley, for D'Souza, is the prototype for America today.

D'Souza maps for us the moral quandaries of life in this crazy new world. "Many of us have more money than we ever thought we would, but somehow prosperity hasn't made us as happy as we expected." Just as we are conflicted about wealth, we don't know how to respond to the freedom from biological constraints we are offered by technology. "We view technology as a vehicle for securing our wants and giving us power over our environment; at the same time, we worry that technology can distract us from the things that matter most, and at times we fear that technology is destroying our most treasured values of privacy, integrity and humanity."

Not only is society divided into warring camps on wealth and technology (which D'Souza calls the "party of yeah" and the "party of nah"), but we are divided within ourselves. D'Souza hopes to "help heal the social division caused by the new technological capitalism, and also...help us reconcile, in our own minds, what place technology and wealth should occupy in our pursuit of the good life." But while "The Moral Conundrum of Success" captures the absurdity of life in high-tech society, offering a portrait of the wealthy as snide, arrogant, and often stupid, it is more propaganda for the technocracy than cultural critique. For D'Souza insists that this is--for the most part--truly the best of all possible worlds.

Take economic inequality. D'Souza argues that inequality, far from being the scourge many say it is, is exactly what we want in a market economy. The people making hundreds of millions of dollars are doing it by inventing things we all want and need. In other words, forget about union-busting, the slow growth of the minimum wage, the proliferation of jobs in the low-wage service sector; for D'Souza, inequality exists because rewards are doled out strictly according to merit, and some people, presumably those in the "Overclass," are simply better, smarter, and more highly valued than others.

D'Souza's attitude toward the element of pure luck is uncharacteristically ambivalent. It's tough to argue that companies that have yet to earn a dime are nonetheless producing things of such value that their founders "deserve" their loot. D'Souza offers a long defense of high-tech stock-option windfalls, but in doing so he contradicts most of his ideas about merit. In effect he asks, What's wrong with getting lucky? In the lottery, for example, "losers are consoled by the hope that if they keep buying tickets maybe one day luck will rain money on their heads."

In short, D'Souza makes a show of raising the question, Does the boom economy's materialism rot morals? But the answer is a foregone conclusion: Not on your life. "Capitalism civilizes greed, just as marriage civilizes lust," he writes in one of the book's more dubious but affirmative-seeming sound bites. Technology, too, is an almost unmitigated boon. D'Souza shrugs off threats to the environment as Luddism, and he defends gene therapy and human cloning. Time and again, the "party of nah" is shown to be a "sorry bunch" of "whiners and losers."

Before disappearing down the rabbit hole into the topsy-turvy world of Silicon Valley with no possibility of return, D'Souza does impose some limits. For D'Souza, the buck stops at genetic engineering. It's not hard to see why. The world he describes is starkly divided into winners and losers. If rich people could simply buy good genes for their children, they might be able to pass down wealth and "merit" at the same time. Even such a believer as D'Souza finds this to be unfair advantage.

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