Economics (6) Good Capitalism & Bad

Good reasonning requires precise language. While capitalism seems (to me) to have been what has enabled almost all advancement by humans around the world, I still hear people attack it as if it were their bane. People learn much of their vocabulary by observing uses by other people, which works imperfectly. Thus, many expect that capitalism is about everything that goes wrong instead of it being about everything (both good and bad). (This kind of confusion occurs with great regularity: “socialism” is where government controls the means of production, regardless of the political ideology; this feature is almost as prevalent as capitalism: I have never met a person who has dealt with any government that was not in some way socialist.)

I offer here a attempt to clear up some of the confusion by suggesting that capitalism can be practiced in either of two forms: “proper capitalism” (good) and “criminal capitalism”. This dichotomy is not as clean and absolute as I would like. I offer here some common examples of criminal capitalism:

  • when your gangsters show up and force people to work in your factory or mine
  • when you load a contract with fine print that significantly affects the exchange
  • when you lie about significant aspects of the deal, like who owns what you are selling or what attributes the product actually has
  • when you use insider information to disadvantage your trading partners
  • when you loot and pollute the environment, aka. the commons that is really owned by all of society

I suggest a simple litmus test for proper capitalism: you must be able to envision how every participant in your deal(s) can profit, that is, the value realised by the participant at the completion of the deal is seen by the participant as greater than it was at the beginning. Fools will deny that this is possible because they believe that life is a zero-sum game. But capitalism has generated great wealth for all of society by exploiting the win-win scenarios.

The primary mechanism by which capitalism generates wealth is the “free market” where the defining freedom is the freedom to decline (to not participate, to walk away). In a free market, people participate only if they see a profit for themselves. A properly regulated free market, with support from the legal system, generates so much wealth over time for all the participants (and, oddly enough, even the onlookers) as to affect the courses of nations.