The term capitalism is highly confusing. The definition is clear enough: the private ownership of the means of production (capital). But the implications are very different depending on one’s political or economic perspective. Both are right and wrong. Let’s take a look at them.
Politically speaking, private ownership of the means of production provides owners with power. Why?
Because society is dependent on the production of value, and production is undertaken using capital. Whoever has ownership of capital can then influence society. Consequently, it is only intuitive that owners of immense capital can make demands from policy-makers, who need to at least consider this perspective when making new laws.
So the power of the state (usually thought of as the power of “the people”) is in a sense limited by capital ownership. And, no doubt, policy-makers feel that their power is to some extent circumscribed by the influence of capital owners. (Whether this is a good or bad thing is a different issue.) So there’s a constant scratching of each other’s backs between the state and capital owners, as should be expected. Both want it their way, and the state’s apparatus (and the state’s means, to refer to Oppenheimer) only allows for one way. So no wonder capital owners and politicians are both cooperating and covering their own behinds.
In other words, politically capitalism is about power because capital ownership implies influence over the political process and capital owners are, in fact, invited to take part in policy-making by political decision-makers. They both gain from such wheeling and dealing.
Economically speaking, this analysis makes little sense. Why?
Because capital as a means of production has value only because and to the extent it is used to satisfy consumers’ wants. As Menger famously exemplified this point already in 1871, a machine used to produce tobacco products has value because consumers like to buy and use tobacco products. But should they, suddenly, not be interested in (and thus not demand) tobacco products, that machine would immediately become worthless. (Or, rather, it would have only scrap value.)
In other words, capital ownership is strictly in the service of consumers. Whenever a capital owner chooses to restrict his/her use of existing capital, it becomes valueless. Capital that is not in use simply has no value. Capital that is used sub-optimally has more value in the hands of other capital owners, which means the owner’s greatest “power” is achieved by selling it! But capital owners have no power over consumers: the consumer is still king and is sovereign in deciding what goods/services are worth his/her time and money.
In other words, what uses of capital are to be valuable. This is hardly a position of power for capital owners – it is the position of a servant. Capitalists have wealth only to the degree they are and continue to be of service to consumers (that is, the “masses”). As soon as they stop, they lose that value or are “forced” (in an economic sense) to sell their capital to producers who better understand how to serve consumers. So how does this servant become a master? That’s the question that requires an answer in order to bridge the economic and political definitions.
One way is to adopt a faulty economic theory, such as Marx’s, and thus claim that capital has objective or intrinsic economic value and that people are desperate to get jobs. But such a theory only begs the question, and leads back to the political dimension. Because there is nothing in an economy forcing anyone to work for a “capitalist.” The very existence of productive capital implies that the economy is somewhat advanced. And this, in turn, means labor is specialized and productive. Which means there are options (see my book on the Unrealized).
The reason there are not options for people, so that they “have to” be employed by capitalists, has an extra-economic cause: it is, in other words, of political origin. So we’re necessarily back to politics.
Another way is to consider a different political system, one that which is not based on hierarchical power claiming the monopoly of violence, which would then not provide policy-makers with power (as there would be no policies to be made) and thus no wheeling and dealing with capital owners: the former would need to contribute to the economy rather than be a burden on it, and the latter would be strictly servient of consumers.
The problem here is to treat both dimensions as they are equal. People of the left focus on the power aspect, and assert that it somehow has economic origin (in other words, they’re economically illiterate). People of the right focus on the economic aspect, and assert that there is no power (or, at least, no problem) due to capital ownership (in other words, they’re ignorant of the state’s influence on society and economy). Still, they use the same term for their very different concepts.
No wonder there is confusion!
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Contributed by Per Bylund of Mises Institute.