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Now and then I’m inspired to blog on the misshapen language of political discourse. I recently wrote about the misuse of words by the American left, including their use of the term “liberalism”. This time, the particular word in play is “capitalism”, which I use to describe the ideal laissez faire economic order. I have always viewed it as a force for good. Real capitalism means free markets, consumer choice, strong private property rights, rewards to private initiative, and competition among producers. Even under conditions of concentrated market power, capitalism is preferable to government monopoly. Nevertheless, Gary Galles writes at The Beacon that capitalism is an inferior description of the laissez-faire ideal than”willing exchange“, or alternatively, unforced or voluntary exchange. Perhaps he has a point.

Capital and labor are the primary factors of production and both must be compensated. Labor earns a wage and capital earns a profit. Generally, the more capital a worker has available on the job, the greater the worker’s productivity and the greater the worker’s wage. However, any profit or return to capital is viewed by the left as an undeserved rent. The question of compensation is quite aside from the valuable social role profits play in directing resources to their most valued uses. Robert Murphy’s drives this home in an excellent recent essay entitled “There’s No Such Thing As Excessive Profits“. Here, here! In another post related to the crucial social role played by capital and profit, Patrick Barron explains “Why We Need Private Property To Deal With Scarce Resources“.

Again, any return to capital, normal or extra-normal, is seen by the left as a reward that should flow to labor in a just world. That is the upshot of Karl Marx’s labor theory of value. Thus, owners of capital are characterized as “takers”. Galles notes the belief that Marx coined the term “capitalism” in order to:

“…falsely imply that the system benefited capitalists at others’ expense, when, in fact, workers have been the greatest gainers from all the productivity enhancements the system has generated.

He quotes Leonard Read on the value of “willing versus unwilling exchange” as an effective way to delineate and contrast the positions of adherents of laissez faire and statism:

Standing for willing exchange, on the one hand, or for unwilling exchange, on the other, more nearly accents our ideological differences than does the employment of the terms in common usage…there is a minimum of verbal facade to hide behind.

Willing exchange…has not yet been saddled with emotional connotations …Further, its antithesis, unwilling exchange…no one, not even a protagonist, proudly acknowledges he favors that; it does offense to his idealism.

If we cut through all the verbiage used to report and analyze political and economic controversy…much of it boils down to a denial of willing and the insistence upon unwilling exchange. …

The concept of willing exchange unseats Napoleonic behavior—all forms of authoritarianism—and enthrones the individual. The consumer becomes king. Individual freedom of choice rules economic affairs… [It] is for me, and a willing seller, to decide; it is no one else’s business!

The hallmark of the state as an actor is coercion. After all, it derives its power via “legitimized” coercion. Individuals are bound under its authority to participate in involuntary exchanges and to make do with a constrained set of willing exchanges. As much as we might amuse ourselves with the notion that our Constitution keeps the state in check, it grows and grows, and where it stops, nobody knows. One wonders how strongly the demonization of so-called “capitalists” plays into this process.

I often refer to voluntary exchange in one form or another. The term recommends itself by virtue of its implication of mutual benefit among parties. Nevertheless, I would have a difficult time abandoning the term “capitalism” in my writing. Here’s the thing: capitalism and free markets have had tremendous success over the last two centuries in improving material conditions and ending human poverty around the globe. Meanwhile, Marxism as a philosophy, and collectivism as a form of social organization, have done nothing to recommend themselves to humankind. So the joke’s on Marx, though we haven’t heard the last of the efforts to besmirch capitalism.