Does Capitalism make us more free or less free?

Allie Burns Period 1 Capitalism has been the subject of criticism from many perspectives during its history. Criticisms range from people who disagree with the principles of capitalism in its entirety, to those who disagree with particular outcomes of capitalism. Among those wishing to replace capitalism with a different method of production and social organization, a distinction can be made between those believing that capitalism can only be overcome with revolution and those believing that structural change can come slowly through political reforms to capitalism.

Karl Marx saw capitalism as a progressive historical stage that would eventually stagnate due to internal contradictions and be followed by socialism. Marxists define capital as “a social, economic relation” between people [1]. In this sense they seek to abolish capital. They believe that private ownership of the means of production enriches capitalists at the expense of workers. In brief, they argue that the owners of the means of production exploit the workforce.

In Karl Marx’s view, the dynamic of capital would eventually impoverish the working class and thereby create the social conditions for a revolution. Private ownership over the means of production and distribution is seen as creating a dependence of non-owning classes on the ruling class, and ultimately as a source of restriction of human freedom. [2]

Marxists have offered various related lines of argument claiming that capitalism is a contradiction-laden system characterized by recurring crises that have a tendency towards increasing severity. They have argued that this tendency of the system to unravel combined with a socialization process that links workers in a worldwide market, create the objective conditions for revolutionary change. Capitalism is seen as just one stage in the evolution of the economic system.

Normative Marxism advocates for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism that would lead to socialism, before eventually transforming into communism after class antagonisms and the state cease to exist. Marxism influenced social democratic and labor parties as well as some moderate democratic socialists, who seek change through existing democratic channels instead of revolution, and believe that capitalism should be regulated rather than abolished.

In capitalism, only those who have money can enjoy real freedom. Those who have no means of living other than selling their labour power may have freedoms, but their opportunities are always restricted. In bourgeois society some freedoms are considered more important than others.

“Freedom of trade is precisely freedom of trade and no other freedom because within it the nature of the trade develops unhindered according to the inner rules of its life. Freedom of the courts is freedom of the courts if they follow their own inherent laws of right and not those of some other sphere, such as religion. Every particular sphere of freedom is the freedom of a particular sphere, just as every particular mode of life is the mode of life of a particular nature” (Marx).

Before the development of bourgeois society in seventeenth century Europe, and with that, conceptions of individualism, freedom was posed only in the form of the question of Free Will, i.e., the problem of Freedom and Necessity, which is dealt with below. The emergence of a civil society governed neither by feudal right nor family relations, posed the question of social freedom for the first time. The conception of freedom has since developed along two lines – positive and negative freedom.

Aside from the purely economic benefits of capitalism and the broad acknowledgement that freedom itself is a good thing, is it possible that the negative effects of capitalism outweigh the positives? Does capitalism destroy a society from the inside out by encouraging gluttony and incentivizing exploitation?

An appraisal of American culture appears to confirm this. In an age of Big Gulps, Big Macs and the “The ‘Merica;” when capitalism seems to have turned human beings into overweight, impatient and technology-crazed consumer zombies; and when people seem more interested in getting ahead than getting along,it is worth considering whether the benefits are worth the costs.

Given that greed is a strong force in all types of societies throughout all of human history, we can conclusively say no, capitalism does not make people greedy. In fact, a system of free enterprise directs our inherent greed toward more productive ends. In a capitalist economy, wealth is the reward for finding ways to meet the needs and demands of others. In a command economy, where reward mechanisms are distorted, individuals more frequently pursue wealth by climbing the ladder of crime and corruption.

This would seem logical—after all, free enterprise is based largely on competition. But winners are not so easy to predict. In a vastly diverse world where people have different resources, intellect, determination and creativity, mere “strength” has little to say about who comes out on top. This is a fact first acknowledged by Socrates, who challenged the idea that justice is the “advantage of the stronger.”

Who would have guessed in the early 2000s that Apple would soon dominate the computer industry, or the music world, or the cell phone market? Who would have thought Blockbuster video would be nearly put out of business by Redbox, Netflix and network TV dramas? And where else can a person born into poverty become a millionaire businessman, but in a free society where opportunity and competition are limitless?

If capitalism does not make us greedier, and it allows for fair competition, then we have to refine our original question. Rather than asking what capitalism does to people, it is more appropriate to ask what it allows people to do to themselves. Freedom means choice, and prosperity expands the breadth and depth of possible choices.

We may therefore ask whether our sinful nature, which tempts us to indulge and exploit, is given more opportunities to do so in a free and prosperous society. This is a legitimate charge against capitalism, of which I confess it is guilty. But if the power to choose and to act is necessarily a potential for evil, then it is also a potential for good. We tend to focus on the worst aspects of free choice, but the same freedom that gives us corndogs and liquor stores also gives us veggie burgers and farmers markets.

One more point is worth noting on this subject. Capitalism is routinely blamed for many cases of supposed excess or exploitation where there is none. American companies can hire Chinese workers to make products at a fraction of the cost of hiring a local worker. Is that exploitation, or is it opportunity? A group of friends can entertain one another with jokes and junk food. Does it count against them as gluttony? The subjective nature of these issues leaves substantial room for interpretation, and there is no shortage of critics willing to make the worst of anything.

Capitalism is particularly easy to misunderstand, to great consequence. By increasing freedom and prosperity, capitalism provides greater opportunities for both good and evil, but using the government to tip the balance more favorably tends to backfire. The task of developing a virtuous people is far beyond legislative jurisprudence. To miss this point is to invite a much greater set of problems.

[1] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. 1948. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[2] Harvey, John T. “Can Marxists Save European Capitalism?” Forbes. Accessed May 4, 2016.

[3] Schuman, Michael. “Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle Is Shaping the World.” TIMES. March 25, 2013. Accessed May 4, 2016.


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