Friday, May 8, 2009

"Capitalism in crisis"

The phrase is the title of an opinion piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by federal circuit judge Richard A. Posner. One comes across the expression frequently these days, and I think it is worth examining the meaning of it a little closer. Why is "capitalism in crisis?"

What is meant by the statement? The word capitalism describes a system of economic organization, in which capital is owned and controlled by private individuals and organizations in an environment of economic competition. We also refer to this system as 'private enterprise,' or 'free enterprise' or 'free market.' It is distinct from a communist economic system, where government both owns and controls the capital of a country, or a fascist system, where capital is owned by private individuals but is largely controlled by the state, or a socialist system, where a portion of the capital may be owned by the government and a sizable portion of the capital is controlled by the state. In any case, the term capitalism describes a particular economic system.

Is this system of economic organization in crisis? To the extent that much private capital in America today (GM, AIG, many large US banks, etc.) is controlled by the federal government, one can justifiably say that the system of capitalism in the US is in crisis.

Of course, what Judge Posner and everyone else mean when they say that capitalism is in crisis is, in fact, that the economy is in crisis. This is something quite different. The rhetorical confusion has a rather unfortunate consequence: instead of focusing on fixing the economy, the gut-level reaction is to change the system. This is extremely unfortunate, since capitalism is the only economic system that has a consistent long-term record of increasing people's standard of living.