Saturday, October 12, 2013

Laissez-Faire Capitalism

I've done quite a bit of reading lately concerning what different people have to say about capitalism. One thing to notice is that capitalism seems to have hundreds of different meanings. Long ago, I memorized the definition as "private property ownership of the means of production." This definition was also specifically contrasted with socialism, which was defined as "government ownership of the means of production." As you can guess, I tell the students in my courses this is how we should define capitalism and socialism.

I have also tended to see capitalism as Adam Smith's "simple system of liberty." With my recent readings I've encountered authors who call capitalism: Financial Capitalism, or Global Capitalism, or Corporate Capitalism, or Free-Market Corporate Capitalism, or Consumerist Capitalism, or Neoliberal Capitalism, or Disaster Capitalism. Not one of these capitalisms corresponds with my thinking of capitalism as Smith's simple system of liberty.  My concern is that when I use the word capitalism I am thinking about liberty while often my listener is thinking I mean one of these capitalisms.

To make these matters worse in my opinion, many people, perhaps most people, say that our system of political economy in the United States is capitalism. Certainly our system of political economy is characterized by private property ownership of the means of production, but our system of political economy is not Smith's simple system of liberty.  Confusion seems to characterize the analysis of capitalism.

What to do? I've recently read a number of people, who see capitalism much as I do, discussing whether or not to stop using capitalism as the word for "that simple system of liberty." Because capitalism has come to have so many different meanings, I am tempted to try to stop using the word. 

Or perhaps I can follow the lead of Deirdre McCloskey and say that I'm cool with just about any definition so long as the definition does not tautologically mean capitalism is bad:
I don't much care how "capitalism" is defined, so long as it is not defined a priori to mean vice incarnate.  The prejudging definition was favored by Rousseau -- though he did not literally use the word "capitalism," still to be coined -- and by Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Luxemburg, Veblen, Goldman, and Sartre.  Less obviously, the same definition was used by their opponents Bentham, Ricardo, Rand, Friedman, and Becker.  All of them, left and right, have defined commercial society at the outset to be bad by any standard higher than successful greed.
Such a definition makes pointless an inquiry into the good and bad of modern commercial society.  If modern capitalism is defined to be the same thing as Greed -- "the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone. . . ., this boundless greed after riches," as Marx put it . . . -- then that settles it, before looking at the evidence. 
Still, since capitalism is a word that has been in use for so long by both proponents and opponents, I don't think it is going to work to try to stop using the word.  I suspect that the list of capitalisms above is not so much the consequence of prejudging capitalism as it is the consequence of mistakenly thinking each of these as invariably what becomes of capitalism over time.  Why mistakenly?  Because it seems the authors using each of these capitalisms has neglected to see that it is a system of political economy they are criticizing, and that means their concerns involve government as much as the private property ownership of the means of production.

As I think about each of the capitalisms I've read about lately, it seems to me there is nothing inherent in private property ownership of the means of production that requires capitalism to become Disaster Capitalism or Neoliberal Capitalism or any of these capitalisms.  Nor does it mean we cannot say any of these capitalisms is not truly capitalism when we define capitalism merely as the private property ownership of the means of production.  After all, there is private property ownership of the means of production in the US today, and each of the authors using these types of capitalism are criticizing aspects of the US system of political economy today.

In the past I have not wanted to give in to the idea that there could be different versions of capitalism.  I've wanted to say, "Now, look here, capitalism means Smith's simple system of liberty.  It cannot mean what people call Disaster Capitalism, or Consumerist Capitalism."  But, perhaps I've been wrong in this regard.  Perhaps I should accept the approach of saying there can be different versions of capitalism, and then make very clear the version of capitalism I'm writing and talking about.  I think it might be good to follow the lead of George Reisman and make clear that I'm writing and talking about Laissez-Faire Capitalism:
Laissez-Faire Capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and in which the powers of the state are limited to the protection of the individual's rights against the initiation of physical force.  This protection applies to the initiation of physical force by other private individuals, by foreign governments, and, most importantly, by the individual's own government.
I might want to modify this definition just a bit, but it pretty much expresses what I mean by capitalism.  So, my intuition is that the best way to try to reduce confusion is to explicitly say that there are different versions of capitalism, and therefore the task is not to learn about capitalism but to learn about Laissez-Faire Capitalism, and perhaps the other versions as well.