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Upside of the new affluence

Posted By Richard Grenier On 10/28/2000 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

“Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely
useful for the sake of something else,” wrote Aristotle some time ago.
Yet — as Election Day bears down on us — wealth, or affluence, or at
least financial security, seems to be the overriding goal, the be-all
and the end-all of both major political parties.

“We are living in an astonishing moment in history,” writes Dinesh
D’Souza in his brilliant new book “The Virtue of Prosperity” (The Free
Press). “The problem of scarcity, which has plagued our species from
the dawn of mankind, is vanishing before our eyes,” he writes. “Wealth
has exploded and spread beyond the confines of a narrow caste. Mass
affluence, once a philosopher’s dream, is now a social reality.”

Since whole continents still hang on the verge of starvation, one
assumes D’Souza is thinking essentially of Western society which, for
some centuries now, has dominated world affairs. But we are living
through a peculiarly modern “predicament,” he says. In the new
millennium the challenges we face will be quite different from those we
faced in the past. The 20th century, for example, was the century of
collectivism — characterized by communism and socialism abroad and the
welfare state at home. It was a doctrine for coping with the problem of
scarcity. Since the time of the Babylonians, scarcity of material goods
has been the central problem facing all social structures — from
government to the family.

In 1958 John Kenneth Galbraith published “The Affluent Society,” but
that age has passed and, it turns out, Galbraith was a little ahead of
the game. America, in fact, was not yet affluent and the American
economy has since gone whistling by to the point that the question now
facing the U.S. is no longer how to acquire wealth but how to use it.

In this country today, more than 15 million people (5 million
households) are now millionaires. America has produced the first
overclass — the first mass affluent class — in history. Soon,
comparable classes will form in other countries, the West leading once
again. And as for Americans who technically don’t belong to the
affluent class, those at the poverty line have a standard of living that
is higher than 80 percent of the world’s population. I have spent half
my life abroad in countries far poorer than the U.S. (and Dinish D’Souza
until he went to Dartmouth had spent his entire life in India). But the
way for any country — wherever in the world — to follow in America’s
path, says D’Souza, is to adopt the American way of “technological
capitalism.”

Capitalism has won the economic war but it has not yet won the moral
war. At least it had not won it in the 1960s when the great
grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, on holiday from elite American
universities, tried to explain to their family the virtues of
communism. The Bible-reading Rockefellers remained devoutly convinced
throughout their long, productive lives that, in building American
capitalism, they were doing God’s work. Nor did their progeny,
acquiring fashionably radical ideas at the great Eastern universities,
shake their faith for a moment.

But the great debate over the size and role of the federal government
in Washington — depending to a degree on the result of the presidential
election — is perhaps over. President Clinton said he was opposed to
“big government,” but, in plain language, he was lying. We are still
waiting for a government that will ensure low tax rates, a stable
monetary policy and free trade. After having given the matter some
thought, Dinesh D’Souza says that if our new president changes into his
pajamas every afternoon and takes a long, peaceful nap (like Calvin
Coolidge), it will not only be good for the stock market, it will be
good for the country.


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