Conservatives Against Materialism

Chatterbox has always been somewhat baffled by George W. Bush’s slogan, “prosperity with a purpose.” It sounds so left wing! In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Bush complained:

Prosperity can be a tool in our hands–used to build and better our country. Or it can be a drug in our system–dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty. … For eight years, the Clinton/Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. And the path of least resistance is always downhill. But America’s way is the rising road. This nation is daring and decent and ready for change. Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose. …

Now, Chatterbox isn’t a complete idiot. He knows that this talk about moral “purpose” is partly a sly way to remind voters that the current president had sex with a White House intern and lied about it under oath. But it’s also supposed to convey the broader notion that the government isn’t doing enough in this time of material comfort. Yet when Bush starts to describe what it should do, he gets fuzzy–as he must, since even moderate conservatives like Bush don’t really favor a more activist federal government. Sometimes Dubya even tries to pass off his tax cut (“a tax cut with a purpose“) as a form of government activism!

Conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza has now stepped up to the challenge of explaining what “prosperity with a purpose” is all about. In his soon-to-be-published book, The Virtue of Prosperity:Finding Values in An Age of Techno-Affluence, D’Souza wrestles with the new conservative dissatisfaction with wealth. D’Souza identifies two schools of thought about the current info-tech boom–the “Party of Yeah,” consisting of those who celebrate it, and the “Party of Nah,” consisting of those who condemn it–and attempts to referee their various disputes. Although D’Souza in the end doesn’t really come down on one side or another, his very ambivalence is astonishing.

These were, after all, arguments waged energetically throughout the 1980s, when conservatives like D’Souza (who worked in the Reagan White House) had little regard for them. Does America have too much inequality? Does the celebration of individual wealth subvert the well-being of the broader community? Does technological development damage the environment? Readers of The Nation and Mother Jones, and even more buttoned-down liberal publications like The New Republic and The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly, are familiar with these questions, but this is virgin territory for D’Souza’s constituency, which reads The Weekly Standard and Human Events and National Review. D’Souza argues strenuously that there has long been a conservative critique about the excesses of capitalism, and that’s true–liberals spent much of the 1980s urging conservatives to remember it–but anti-materialist conservatism certainly hasn’t been much in evidence during the past, say, 30 years.

Reading D’Souza’s intelligent but rather aimless book, Chatterbox is reminded why: It’s incredibly difficult to pull off. Like Bush, D’Souza can’t bring himself to advocate much action by the federal government to address the moral purposelessness of today’s flush era. Redistribution of wealth is, of course, abhorrent to him. (In one of the book’s more contentious passages, D’Souza argues against using the government even to guarantee “equality of opportunity” because it would “undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide” to his 5-year-old daughter.) So what are we supposed to do about America’s purposeless prosperity? Nothing! No, that isn’t right. We’re supposed to fret noisily about it until George W. Bush is elected president. When that happens, we’re supposed to forget all about the conservative spiritual crisis and revert to worshipping the almighty dollar.