[Capitalism] does not have a commonly accepted meaning, proponents of it to the contrary notwithstanding. As matters stand, it cannot be used with precision in discourse. And it is loaded with connotations which make it value-laden. Indeed, it is most difficult for those who use it from whatever side not to use it simply as an “angel” or “devil” word, i.e., to signify something approved or disapproved. Meanwhile, what that something is goes largely unspecified because it is hidden beneath a blunderbuss word.
My considered opinion is that capitalism is not a descriptive word at all in general usage. Dictionary-like definitions may give it the appearance of being descriptive. One dictionary defines it as “a system under which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are in large measure privately owned and directed.” On the face of it, the meaning may appear clear enough. We can come in sight of the difficulty, however, if we turn the whole thing around and look at what is supposed to be signified, shutting out of our minds for the moment the word used to signify it. Suppose, that is, that we have a set of arrangements in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods “are in large measure privately owned and directed.” I am acquainted with such arrangements, both from history and from some present-day actualities.
But why should we call such arrangements capitalism? So far as I can make out, there is no compelling reason to do so. There is nothing indicated in such arrangements that suggests why capital among the elements of production should be singled out for emphasis. Why not land? Why not labor? Or, indeed, why should any of the elements be singled out? Well, why not call it capitalism, it may be asked? A rose by any other name, Shakespeare had one of his characters say, would smell as sweet. That argument is hardly conclusive in this case, however, nor in others similar to it. Granted, when a phenomenon is identified it may be assigned a name, and in the abstract one name will do as well as another, if the name be generally accepted. In the concrete, however, the name should either follow from the nature of the phenomenon or be a new word. Otherwise, it will bring confusion into the language.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Posted by Skyler J. Collins
I had only somewhat ventured to know the origin of the word "capitalism" and learned it was first coined by Karl Marx in his book Das Kapital. I've always used it as synonymous with "free-market" and "free enterprise". It wasn't until I read my latest Freeman issue that "capitalism" took on a new meaning. In "Capitalism: Yes and No", author Clarence B. Carson examines the various definitions of capitalism. It's a very interesting article and after reading it, I must admit, the term capitalism has become somewhat tainted. But then again, not really. Let's just say I find the terms free-market and free enterprise preferable. This is a must read, an excerpt: