“Capitalism” means the sector of an economy in which markets determine prices and quantities. In a “capitalist” system, both the market for goods and the market for inputs are based on voluntary action within the constraints of governmental interventions, namely taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and mandates.
The term “capitalism” was first used in 1854 by William Thackeray in his novel The Newcomes. The term “capitalist” was used previously to refer to an owner of capital goods. The term was popularized by the German sociologist Max Weber as well as by socialists who use the term to condemn private enterprise as a system that exploits labor. In response, advocates of free markets use the term to mean private enterprise and to praise the concept of a free-market economy.
Confusion sets in as adjectives apply the term to markets with governmental interventions or to governmental enterprise, as in “state capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” “welfare capitalism,” “monopoly capitalism,” and “taxpayer-financed capitalism.” Thus “capitalism” is used to refer to current mixed economics (mixtures of markets and governmental intervention) and also to the concept of the pure free market. With the bad connotations as used by socialists, some advocates of reforms then present their approach as an alternative to “capitalism”.
Critics of markets use the term “capitalism” for propaganda by slyly shifting the meaning with this argument: 1) economies today are capitalist; 2) economies today have unemployment, poverty, and pollution; 3) therefore, capitalism causes these problems. The first statement uses “capitalism” as a label for current mixed economies, while the third one implicitly shifts the meaning to private enterprise or free markets.
The term “capitalism” is inherently confusing, since economies have three inputs: land, labor, and capital goods, and there is no logical reason to emphasize capital, unless one is going beyond the definition by claiming that capital dominates labor.
The term “capital” is itself ambiguous, as it can refer to any asset, including funds, capital goods, and reputation. It would be clearer to use the term “marketism,” but that word has already been adopted to mean the advocacy of free markets. “Marketocracy” is used by a mutual fund and portfolio web site. The term “market-priceism” is not yet in use, and would be a clearer term than “capitalism.”
An alternative to market prices is communism, in which goods are shared in a community such as a family. Another alternative is state socialism, in which government plans and controls production and resources, as well as the distribution of goods. Most economies today are mixed, consisting of a market sector and governmental impositions that alter the outcomes.
Economic discourse would be clearer if we used more precise terms. Instead of using “capitalism” to mean economic freedom, use “free markets,” “pure markets,” “private enterprise,” and “laissez faire.” Instead of using “capitalism” or “crony capitalism” for the actual economy, use “mixed economy” or “interventionism.” Instead of using “capitalism” for the exploitation of labor, use “capital domination.” For an economic system in which inputs and products trade in markets, use “market-priceism.”
Max Weber used terms such as “the development of capitalism” and “the evolution of capitalism.” This implies more than market-priceism. Weber analyzed economic development with private enterprise and market prices. He wrote of how such development could be strangled by the political structure. It would be clearer to call this “market-based development.”
Like the classical economists, Weber recognized the distinction between capital goods and land. He referred to “landlordism” and “prebends,” income from rent. In his essay “Structures of Power,” Weber wrote of land being an object of forceful acquisition, with ground rent frequently being “the produce of violent political subjection.”
In his essay “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Weber wrote of some religions promoting a “rational way of life” which “paved the way for the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism” and the ethos of the individualism of the middle classes with their small businesses. With due respect and admiration for Max Weber, this concept is better referred to with terms such as the spirit of private property, of competitive private enterprise, and of free markets.
The term “capitalism” is now so deeply dug into the global culture that it is here to stay. But those who wish to clearly understand and analyze economics would be wise to avoid the term and instead use words such as “mixed economy,” “pure free markets,” and, if it pleases you, “market-priceism.”