The Definition of Capitalism

The culture of language is a powerful thing.  Words often have a cultural meaning that goes considerably beyond their literal meaning.  Many budding intellectuals miss this point when they debate, framing their arguments in the literal while ignoring the (vastly more important) cultural meaning of their words.  Lots of people that could be coming to genuine compromises instead end up talking past each other as a result.

Today’s example:  The word “Capitalism.”

The literal, dictionary definition of the word is pretty simple.  It’s an economic system in which wealth and means of production are owned and distributed privately.  That’s it.  But is that really the extent of what people think when they think of that word?  Go find a liberal, a conservative, and a libertarian and ask them what they think of capitalism.  Not only are you virtually guaranteed to get three different answers, paying close attention will probably reveal that they don’t seem to be talking about the same thing at all.

People often equate “capitalism” with “democracy” – as if the two were incontrovertibly intertwined.  Some people equate “capitalism” with “freedom” – as if, if you had one, you automatically had the other.  Still others can’t help but conjure dystopian visions of oppression, poverty and enslavement – as if “capitalism” were synonymous with theft, fraud, and assorted villainy.

At its core, the literal definition of capitalism is a very good thing.  Private distribution of wealth is responsible for tremendous human advancement.  But in the public discourse, we may be beyond the point of saving the actual word.  This can be painful for those that understand that what it truly means is so good – but you have to pick your battles.  The amount of effort we might put towards changing the popular definition of this word would be significantly better spent pushing for actual policy improvements, rather than semantics.

So here is my advice to the freedom-minded today:  When next you hear someone bash “capitalism” because it oppresses the poor, embroils us in wars, or removes civil liberties – agree.  Agree vehemently, in fact.  Accept that the person you’re talking with isn’t using the word as you would use it.  Accept that they’ve taken “capitalism” as a proxy for “crony corporatism,” and jump right in with them.  Don’t talk past them – if you forget the battle over one little word, you may find a tremendous amount of common ground.

If we stop trying to save the word “capitalism,” we might just save capitalism.


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