Merriam-Webster defines “capitalism” thusly:
“An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
Let’s be crystal-clear about this. Capitalism is an economic system. It’s not a religious creed, a system of government, a political party or a way of life. With a variety of tweaks and alterations it’s an economic system that has served the US pretty well, most of the time.
Capitalism is enshrined neither in the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution (Go ahead, take a look). For that matter, I’m reasonably certain Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, et al, would have a hard time recognizing 21st-century America’s economic system. They were all businessmen of one sort or another but the sort of businesses they ran (with varying degrees of success) would bear little resemblance to the likes of Bank of America, Monsanto or Enron.
There are giants of the American political mythos who would recognize leviathans like the ones listed above: Teddy Roosevelt would recognize them as exactly the sort of trusts he built his reputation busting. His cousin Franklin built his reputation rebuilding the American economy after corporations like these created that little fiasco known as the Great Depression.
I’m not here to try to convince you that capitalism is bad. I don’t believe it is. To the contrary, I believe it’s an ingenious system that, when efficiently regulated, has created tremendous wealth and a fine standard of living. Handled with care, capitalism incentivizes citizens in a free society to optimize the use of their, well, their capital, to make their communities – their world a better place.
See what I did there? It’s not the economic system that matters. It’s the citizens in the free society that matter. The people. The economic system – in this case, capitalism – is a tool. An important tool, but a tool nonetheless.
You’ve heard the old maxim that if the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail? I think that’s at the root of some of our current problems as a nation. We’ve allowed capitalism to become synonymous with Americanism. We’ve allowed some people with vested interests to convince us that the greatest measure of America’s health is the Dow Jones Index, not the actual health of We The People.
But we have evidence that capitalism isn’t the only economic tool in our collective belt. We’ve used limited versions of socialism since 1776, and we continue to do so. When we’ve been most successful as a nation (see the FDR reference above, as well as Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System and Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon’s NASA) we’ve been unafraid to mix healthy doses of socialism with capitalism and created all sorts of interesting hybrid systems.
When we allow capitalism to be fetishized to the degree it is now and the degree it was in the 1880’s and 1920’s, bad things happen to the citizens, and our free society is at a high risk.
The key, the thing that makes capitalism work for us as opposed to making us work for it, the thing that makes it a tool instead of a way of life, is the tweaks and the alterations. When we handle it with care and use it efficiently – as with any tool – capitalism makes the job easier. And the job is making life better for every American. When we worship at the altar of the (deeply misunderstood) Invisible Hand, capitalism works like an out of control reaping machine or an unshielded nuclear core: It chews people up and makes them sick.
Isn’t it about time we decided to focus on the job at hand, and that we’d better start using every tool in the toolbox to get it right?