The great debate between capitalism and socialism suffers from a lack of clarity about definitions. This is why when Walter Block lectured in Brazil this past week, he was very careful to distinguish between crony capitalism and authentic capitalism. And it’s why when I was interviewed, the question came up immediately: What precisely do you mean by capitalism?
Every day, for example, we read how the European economic mess is a “crisis of capitalism.” Huh? It’s been more than a century since governments let these economies grow on their own without bludgeoning them with regulations, taxing and looting the public, littering financial systems with fake money, cartelizing producers, shoveling welfare benefits, funding gigantic public works and the like.
Some advocates of market liberty believe that the term “capitalism” should be jettisoned permanently because it causes confusion. People might think that you favor using the state to back capital against labor, using public policy in a way that supports prominent producers over consumers or pushing political priorities that advance business over labor.
If a term elucidates an idea with accuracy, great. If it causes confusion, change it. Language is constantly evolving. No particular arrangement of letters embeds an immutable meaning. And what is at stake in this debate about market freedom (or capitalism or laissez-faire or the free market) is a substance of profound importance.
It’s the substance, not the words, we should care about. Civilization really does hang in the balance.
Here are five core elements to this idea of market freedom, or whatever you want to call it. It is my short summary of the classical liberal vision of the free society and its functioning, which isn’t just about economics but the whole of life itself.
Volition. Markets are about human choice at every level of society. These choices extend to every sector and every individual. You can choose your work. No one can force you. At the same time, you can’t force yourself on any employer. No one can force you to buy anything, either, but neither can you force someone to sell to you.
This right of choice recognizes the infinite diversity within the human family (whereas state policy has to assume people are interchangeable units). Some people feel a calling to live lives of prayer and contemplation in a community of religious believers. Others have a talent for managing high-risk hedge funds. Others favor the arts or accounting, or any profession or calling that you can imagine. Whatever it is, you can do it, provided it is pursued peacefully.
You are the chooser, but in your relations with others, “agreement” is the watchword. This implies maximum freedom for everyone in society. It also implies a maximum role for what are called “civil liberties.” It means freedom of speech, freedom to consume, freedom to buy and sell, freedom to advertise and so on. No one set of choices is legally privileged over others.
Ownership. In a world of infinite abundance, there would be no need for ownership. But so long as we live in the material world, there will be potential conflicts over scarce resources. These conflicts can be resolved through fighting over things or through the recognition of property rights. If we prefer peace over war, volition over violence, productivity over poverty, all scarce resources — without exception — need private owners.
Everyone can use his or her property in any way that is peaceful. There are no accumulation mandates or limits on accumulation. Society cannot declare anyone too rich, nor prohibit voluntary asceticism by declaring anyone too poor. At no point can anyone take what is yours without your permission. You can reassign ownership rights to heirs after you die.
Socialism is not really an option in the material world. There can be no collective ownership of anything materially scarce. One or another faction will assert control in the name of society. Inevitably, the faction will be the most-powerful society — that is, the state. This is why all attempts to create socialism in scarce goods or services devolve into totalitarian systems.
Cooperation. Volition and ownership grant the right to anyone to live in a state of pure autarky. On the other hand, that won’t get you very far. You will be poor, and your life will be short. People need people to obtain a better life. We trade to our mutual betterment. We cooperate in work. We develop every form of association with each other: commercial, familial and religious. The lives of each of us are improved by our capacity to cooperate in some form with other people.
In a society based on volition, ownership and cooperation, networks of human association develop across time and space to create the complexities of the social and economic order. No one is the master of anyone else. If we want to succeed in life, we come to value serving each other in the best way we can. Businesses serve consumers. Managers serve employees just as employees serve businesses.
A free society is a society of extended friendship. It is a society of service and benevolence.
Learning. No one is born into this world knowing much of anything. We learn from our parents and teachers, but more importantly, we learn from the infinite bits of information that come to us every instant of the day all throughout our lives. We observe success and failure in others, and we are free to accept or reject these lessons as we see fit. In a free society, we are free to emulate others, accumulate and apply wisdom, read and absorb ideas and extract information from any source and adapt it to our own uses.
All of the information we come across in our lives, provided it is obtained noncoercively, is a free good, not subject to the limits of scarcity because it is infinitely copyable. You can own it and I can own it and everyone can own it without limit.
Here we find the “socialist” side of the capitalist system. The recipes for success and failure are everywhere and available to use for the taking. This is why the very notion of “intellectual property” is inimical to freedom: It always implies coercing people and thereby violating the principles of volition, authentic ownership and cooperation.
Competition. When people think of capitalism, competition is perhaps that first idea that comes to mind. But the idea is widely misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that there must be several suppliers of every good or service, or that there must be a set number of producers of anything. It means only that there should be no legal (coercive) limits on the ways in which we are permitted to serve each other. And there really are infinite numbers of ways in which this can take place.
In sports, competition has a goal: to win. Competition has a goal in the market economy, too: service to the consumer through ever increasing degrees of excellence. This excellence can come from providing better and cheaper products or services or providing new innovations that meet people’s needs better than existing products or services. It doesn’t mean “killing” the competition; it means striving to do a better job than anyone else.
Every competitive act is a risk, a leap into an unknown future. Whether the judgment was right or wrong is ratified by the system of profit and loss, signals that serve as objective measures of whether resources are being used wisely or not. These signals are derived from prices that are established freely on the market — which is to say that they reflect prior agreements among choosing individuals.
Unlike sports, there is no end point to the competition. It is a process that never ends. There is no final winner; there is an ongoing rotation of excellence among the players. And anyone can join the game, provided they go about it peacefully.
Summary. There we have it: volition, ownership, cooperation, learning and competition. That’s capitalism as I understand it, as described in the classical liberal tradition improved by the Austrian social theorists of the 20th century. It is not a system so much as a social setting for all times and places that favor human flourishing.
It’s not hard to discern my political outlook then: If it fits with these pillars, I’m for it; if it does not, I’m against it. Now, you tell me: Is the European crisis, or the U.S.’ own, really a crisis of capitalism? On the contrary, an authentic capitalism is the answer to the biggest problems in the world today.