Libertarians Should Abandon The Term "Capitalism"
Libertarians Should Abandon The Term "Capitalism"
By Gary Chartier / c4ss.org

Advocating liberty means opposing the use of force to restrain peaceful, voluntary exchange. But it doesn’t have to mean calling a system of peaceful, voluntary exchange “capitalism.”

Some people, of course, think this is obviously what “capitalism” means. And I can’t prove they’re wrong, because the word means different things to different people. I’m confident, though, that even if advocates of liberty intend to communicate the message that they’re supporting free exchange by saying they embrace “capitalism,” it might make sense for them just to pick another word.

That’s because “capitalism” carries a lot of baggage—much of it negative. It is unclear when the English word “capitalism” was first employed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, William Makepeace Thackeray used it (in a neutral sense) as early as 1854–55 in his novel The Newcomes. It was being used in a critical sense much earlier than that, however. For instance, it was repeatedly used with a negative connotation by the radical free-market writer Thomas Hodgskin as early as 1825. In his 1827 book Popular Political Economy, he even speaks, in surprisingly modern tones, about “greedy capitalists”!

Obviously, the fact that one pro-market writer used “capitalist” or “capitalists” negatively doesn’t prove that the word is irremediably tainted. But I’ve mentioned Hodgskin to point out that these words have been used pejoratively for a long time, and not only by opponents of free markets. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that many people who talk about “capitalism” or “capitalists” aren’t thinking about freedom at all.

For instance: Mainstream print and electronic media regularly use “capitalism” to refer to “the economic system we have now.” And it’s relatively common to hear “capitalism” employed as a synonym for dominance of workplaces and society by the owners of substantial capital assets. Advocates of liberty don’t need to be identified as supporters of capitalism in either of these senses.

[As libertarian philosopher Roderick Long points out, a particularly mischievous use of “capitalism” occurs when people use the term to mean, in effect, both “free exchange” and either “the status quo,” “rule by capitalists,” or both. In this sense, “capitalism” is a “package-deal” concept that links two independent ideas and treats them as if they necessarily belonged together. Advocates of liberty have every reason not to support this use of “capitalism,” unless they want to endorse the dubious notion that free markets involve privilege and lead to hierarchy, abuse, and poverty.

To a very significant degree, the economic system we have now is one from which many peaceful, voluntary exchanges are absent. An interlocking web of legal and regulatory privileges benefits the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of everyone else (think patents and copyrights, tariffs, restrictions on banking, occupational licensing rules, land-use restrictions, etc.). The military-industrial complex funnels unbelievable amounts of money—at gunpoint—from ordinary people’s pockets and into the bank accounts of government contractors and their cronies. Subsidies of all kinds feed a network of privileged businesses and non-profits. And the state protects titles to land taken at gunpoint or engrossed by arbitrary fiat before distribution to favored individuals and groups.

No, the economies of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia, at least, aren’t centrally planned. The State doesn’t assert formal ownership of (most of) the means of production. But the State’s involvement at multiple levels in guaranteeing and bolstering economic privilege makes it hard to describe the economic system we have now as “free.” So if “capitalism” names the system we have now, anyone who favors freedom has good reason to be skeptical about capitalism.

The privileges that mark the existing economic order, whatever we call it, disproportionately benefit those with the most political influence and the greatest wealth. And the network of privileges preserved by the State tends in various ways to boost the privileges of capitalists in the workplace. As regards the workplace: State-secured privilege reduces the possibility of self-employment (by raising capital requirements and otherwise increasing costs of entry, while simultaneously reducing the resources people might be able to use to start and maintain their own businesses). It also imposes legal restraints on union activity that reduce workers’ capacity to bargain effectively with employers, including legislation like the Wagner Act, which tames unions and reduces their non-violent bargaining options. By reducing alternatives to paid work and reducing workers’ collective bargaining opportunities, the State substantially increases employers’ leverage. In short: Dominance of workplaces and of society by “capitalists” as it occurs today depends on government mischief. Again, if this is “capitalism,” proponents of freedom have no reason to embrace it.

Of course, someone could argue that, while “capitalism” is frequently used to refer to objectionable social phenomena, it just as frequently refers to an economic system to which freedom is truly central. Some people do use it this way. But the negative usage has been around for a long time and is very common today. The word is tainted. And when people in the streets of countries throughout the developing world chant out their opposition to “capitalism”—meaning, in reality, not genuine freedom but rather unjust dominance by Western powers and their privileged corporate cronies—I think it’s vital for advocates of liberty to be able to make clear that the system of statist oppression the protestors are naming isn’t the system we favor.

Contributors to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, commentators on Faux News, and other spokespersons for the political and economic elite may continue to use “capitalism” for whatever it is they say they favor. They’re not libertarianism’s natural allies, and there’s no reason for libertarians to emulate them. Support for free markets is quite consistent with saying good-bye to “capitalism.”

Image credit: Steve Lambert "Capitalism works for me!" art installation

4.2 ·
2
What's Next
Trending Today
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 16,219 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 14,127 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 10,280 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
10 Stunning Images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award
Natural History Museum · 9,374 views today · These incredible images are a selection from of the 25 shortlisted by The Natural History Museum for the People's Choice Award from this year's Wildlife Photographer of the...
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Tommy Lehe · 6,989 views today · We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but...
Forget Air Force One, Pentagon Wastes Billions and Billions Every Month
Nadia Prupis · 5,025 views today · President-elect Donald Trump's focus on single Boeing contract ignores enormous waste of bloated Pentagon budget
Stunning Summary of US Imperialism and Native Resistance... on MSNBC!
4 min · 3,803 views today · On The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC, Lawrence explains why a protest by Native Americans in North Dakota reminds us of the history American always tries to forget.
DREAM: A Spoken Word Meditation For When Life Is Kicking Your Ass
4 min · 2,319 views today · If life is kicking your ass and the general un-coolness of everybody on planet erf is making you want to off yourself, TALK to someone: 800-273-8255 (national suicide...
Amanda Abbington Introduces iAnimal - 42 Days in the Life of Chickens
4 min · 2,099 views today · Shot undercover in British factory farms and slaughterhouses, this immersive 360° video gives you a birds-eye view of what happens to chicken from farm to plate.
The Most Powerful Algorithm in the World
Joe Brewer · 2,058 views today · After the insanity of the U.S. election, a lot of people are blaming Facebook for its algorithms that parse us into ideological bubbles and spread “fake news” and other kinds...
Standing Rock Wisdom: How Sacred, Nonviolent Activism Has the Power to Succeed
Charles Eisenstein · 1,948 views today · I am told by Native American friends active at Standing Rock that the elders are counseling the Water Protectors to undertake each action prayerfully and to stay off the...
The Other Way of Knowing
Lilian Na’ia Alessa · 1,869 views today · Western science and Indigenous worldviews are often seen as incompatible, with the Indigenous view usually being far less valued by society at large. But an inside look at...
How a White Supremacist Became a Civil Rights Activist
Araz Hachadourian · 1,540 views today · The story of a KKK leader’s transformation shows us that we need not live forever with the kind of violence we saw in Charleston this month.
Veterans at Standing Rock Ask Forgiveness for War Crimes Against Tribal Nations
Jen Hayden · 1,509 views today · Jon Eagle Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has reported something wholly unexpected happened at the Standing Rock Reservation today. The...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,357 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Dear Activists, Maybe It's Time to Admit That We've Got It All Wrong
Mickey Z. · 1,319 views today · “The first step in the revolution is eye contact.” - Alicen Grey
Sean Carroll - The Meaning of Life
7 min · 1,290 views today · The world keeps happening in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value. Sean Carroll Music: Moby - God Moving Over the Face of the Waters
Solar is Already Producing More Energy Than Oil, Says Major Scientific Review
Nafeez Ahmed · 1,214 views today · And is twice as powerful than previously thought
Why People Cling to Old Beliefs
1 min · 1,141 views today · Cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University, Daniel Levitin, explains why people can be so stubborn when it comes to false beliefs. This behavior is...
The 24-Hour Emergency Hotline for Syrian Refugees
7 min · 1,137 views today · Mohammed Abu Amar runs a makeshift 24-hour helpline from his flat in Hamburg, guiding scared refugees fleeing the violence in Syria across the water to Europe.  Despite losing...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Libertarians Should Abandon The Term "Capitalism"