Capitalism vs. the Free Market – Sheldon Richman’s Full Lecture

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Lecture by Sheldon Richman given as part of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s “Economic Liberty Lecture Series” on March 1, 2010.

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, published by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York, and serves as senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is the author of FFF’s award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State.

Here’s a great short piece on the differences between capitalism and free enterprise from Rick Martin:

“When I tell people that capitalism and free enterprise are not the same thing, I typically get a deer-in-the-headlights look, followed by a clearly articulated “Huh?”  But they are not the same thing, and that is the subject of this piece.

Capitalism requires growth.  Free enterprise does not.  Capitalism can only be satisfied by “more.”  Free enterprise can be satisfied by “enough.”  Free enterprise can go on forever.  Capitalism cannot.

Free enterprise means that I am free to set up my own enterprise, say a general store, and the Federal Agents will not come knocking at midnight. As long as my expenses do not exceed my revenues, my enterprise can continue indefinitely without the need to increase my net worth.

Free enterprise requires freedom, but it does not require accumulation, or growth.

Capitalism, on the other hand, requires a return on investment (ROI).  It requires me to accumulate ever more capital. If I invest $100, by the end of the year, I had better realize a minimum of $106.  If I don’t, then my investment became negative, as the very roots of capitalism are planted in inflation.

If I reinvest my $106, I must receive $113 the next year.  This must continue forever, or else the capitalist system will fail. This is closely related to the concept of compound interest. This also requires an exponential increase in the money supply, which eventually becomes impossible to balance with the physical system of available resources.

The real difference then, is this; capitalism requires accumulation while free enterprise does not.  Capitalism also requires external inputs, often coming from Peter where Paul is the capitalist. “Those who rob Peter to pay Paul, can always count on Paul for support” ─ George Bernard Shaw

“Growth” must come from an expansion of the money supply, resulting in the dilution of the value of the currency (inflation).  Capitalism and free enterprise are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, capitalism usually rides on the back of free enterprise making them appear as one.

Capitalism thus requires infinite growth.  Since we live on a finite planet, this is clearly impossible.  Eventually something has to give.  It is not a matter of if, but only a matter of when.  To believe otherwise is to believe in magic.  When I was a child, compound interest seemed like magic to me.  Yet any professional magician will tell you that magic is not really magic, but merely an illusion. Similar to capitalism.

The characteristics of capitalism are the characteristics of the weed:  overshoot and die-off.  Before the weed dies it shoots out consumerism, imperialism, and planned obsolescence.  These are meant to delay the demise of the weed but in the end, when it has exhausted its resources, the weed dies anyway. Capitalism must, in the end, consume its own host society. The result of practicing unchecked capitalism in the U.S. is currently consuming our Middle Class.

We have all seen those movies where the crew of a steamship, when the coal is gone, rips up the decks to feed the boilers.  It is clear to everyone that this can only go on for so long as there are decks to rip up. A steadily increasing return on investment, which is the very essence of capitalism, can only have a similar result. The poor people on the steamship may be hopeful of rescue by another ship.  On Spaceship Earth, I do not think we can count on being rescued by, or making landfall on another planet.

So it comes back to my initial comparison of capitalism and free enterprise. Free enterprise means, quite literally, freedom.  Freedom to try, freedom to succeed, and freedom to fail.

Capitalism (sorry, Dr. Friedman) does not mean freedom.  It means slavery to the demands of return on investment; of never ending growth.  Carried to its logical conclusion, in our present time it probably means turning into a society that might be characterized as high-tech feudalism.

Free enterprise is a shopkeeper, capitalism is a banker.  With free enterprise, we can own our wealth.  With capitalism, our wealth will wind up owning us.  That is the real difference.  And that is our choice.


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4 comments to Capitalism vs. the Free Market – Sheldon Richman’s Full Lecture

  • A fine distinction and nicely made. We inhabit finite space true, and this creates limitations to expansion, but money is an abstract, even when gold backed and as long a one can invent numbers, one can expand fiat currency. Originally a unit of exchange to simplify transactions between people, it has, as any other addiction, become the objective and not the means. And as the objective of our lives, the actual overthrown by the abstract, our lives become beholden to those who be holdin’ the most. Thanks for your clarity!

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  • Great to see people making the distinction between capitalism, (about 300 years old) and the “free market”, (as old as human civilization); althoug the above-description doesn’t seem to dig much beneath the surface.

    Yes, capitalism is inherently-unstable, ever driven to grow, etc. But the main problem is that Monopo-Capitalism has always been driven by an Elite few, (industrialists) who control government (the state) to their own interests.

    Because American monopo-capitalism had the advantage of stealing a resource-rich continent from the native people, there was unprecedented room to grow; so there was great opportunity for “the little guy” to prosper, (at least temporarily); but eventually, the monopolistic character of capitalism continued to re-assert itself, (banks foreclosing on small farms, the disappearance of the so-called “middle class,” etc.)

    Capitalism has always been monopoly-capitalism, a class society, and the so-called “middle-class” was largely a myth; but in America, the state has been able to convince us that we were “free,” particularly with the “welfare state” over the last 75 years, (where the government borrowed the money to create the illusion of “freedom” and “prosperity,” in order to claw it all back when the banks call back the loans).

    Mr. Richman is well-informed when he talks about how the terms “socialist” once had very different meanings, (at least to some). People may be surprised to know the fiercest opponents of the Bolshevic “state-communists” were anarchists… calling themselves “libertarian communists,… socialists” etc.

    In fact, he’s one of the most-informed “free-market libertarians” I’ve yet heard, concerning the marxist/socialist understanding of the socialist critique of capitalism, (the discussion of the Land Enclosures is a central part of Marx’s “Das Capital”).

    In response to the second last question, “What do you say to people who still blame ‘free-markets,’ Mr. Richman gives a confused response; when in it’s quite simple: the monopo-capitalist state (and media) has done a great job… confusing in our mind, capitalism with free-markets. Once you make that distinction, then the normally free-market-skeptics, (leftists, progressives, etc) can see what you’re saying, because they too recognize that the markets are not free, that they’re owned by a tiny elite, (and that this Elite has used the term “free market” as a cover for their crimes).

    Good to see people from both “left” and “right” talking about our common enemy: the elite, (whether capitalist, landowner, or government bureaucrat).

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  • I agree with most of the ideas shared here, but i think we should try to understand why people confuse the two concepts. Is it just a matter of education? Or is it the fact that “free market” is the basis of capitalism? Unfortunately, it is in our nature that many of us try to dominate others. This means that if we all succeed to create a free market as described here, some of us will try to take advantage of the freedom (by interpreting and abusing it to their advantage). That’s how capitalism was born.

    So the question is: can we really have a free market (assuming that we get rid of all corrupt corporations, politicians, lobbyists, etc.)? Or are we going to create another system that will eventually become corrupt? Is a really free market an utopian concept?

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  • joe

    In answer to your question, QUESTION1st, I think it’s both: a matter of education, (propaganda); and also… an evolutionary outgrowth of free-market society; where, the elite (monopoly, ruling class) nature of human society goes through a definite evolution; where, early tribal society starts out profoundly free and also… communal; matriarchal, yet with a fatal flaw, out of which grows patriarchy; then Elite families, (priesthood); then the ancient-slave-state, Feudalism, Capitalism… each, a qualitatively-different system, each retaining its own elite/monopoly/oppressive character… an evolution driven, (in sequential stages): either by a dramatic advance in the technological development (production, as in capitalism); or, as in Feudalism… a new set of social relations… evolving from a new, (more-developed) point in time, arising out of the ruins of the old, established techno-tyranny, (Roman Empire).

    During the classical decades of the Medieval City, for example, the free-market flourished, (expanded) along with civil liberties and also strong communal bonds. But this era of Feudal freedom was short-lived because the tendency of any elite society is to concentrate more and more power: it gradually suffocates the (new, rejuvenating) form of free-market “relations,” and it (eventually) provokes such mass discontent as to explode in revolution.

    (The new, capitalist society was propelled into being on the coat-tails of a technological… industrial revolution; and, our new, more-loving society, whatever it might be called, will evolve out of the cultural collapse… provoked by the emptiness of capitalism’s technological advance).

    And the principle means (of propaganda) by which the modern, capitalist elite cloaks their (class) control of us… is through the rhetoric ’round ‘the market’; where, they intentionally confuse the terms, “capitalism” and “free market.”

    This is why well-meaning leftists and liberals question the phrase, “free-market.” They see it as a cover-story for more elite domination of the market. Unfortunately, they often lose sight of the sanctity of the (ancient) ‘free market” in the process.

    This is also why genuine conservatives, libertarians tend to cling to the sanctity of the “free-market”: it harkens back to a simpler day where our honest, fair-minded nature was allowed to prevail, (as common assumption). Unfortunately, they they often buy into the illusion, confusing freedom with… ‘capitalist’ freedoms

    Throughout history, our cooperative instinct has never ceased trying to express (and re-establish) itself.

    Capitalism has always been an elite-driven, monopoly-capitalism; yet for a time, it also gave room for advances in local industry, so-called civil “rights”, (though even here, we workers usually had to pay for our liberties with blood, jail, repression… check the history out, such as Mr. Richman above, or Howard Zinn).

    Where I differ with you, QUESTION1st, is with your suggestion that, “it is in our nature that many of us try to dominate others.”

    Well, it’s also in our nature to be profoundly cooperative, loving, conscientious, (as the study of anthropology clearly proves).

    We have evolved from a peaceful, loving foundation, (relative paradise) into Empire, greed, oppression, resistance, revolution, etc. because of our need to restrain that dominating side of ourselves… to awaken to a full appreciation… the eternal significance of the most-intimate details of life; where honesty, compassion, love are as necessary as they are… pleasing.

    (In part, this one of capitalism’s gifts to us: it has opened the theoretical door to ‘freedom,’ while denying it in practice; thus provoking us to act.)

    And I would suggest… it’s one of the products of elite capitalist propaganda: they want us to emphasize our competitive, abusive nature, because that’s exactly what the elite live by, and it serves their continued control of us, when we buy into this (often unconscious) belief that this can never change.

    So yes, we can have a free-market; for it merely represents a return to our inmost nature; but first, we have to believe it is… our inmost nature.

    Love, in other words.

    From there, free-markets will always find new ways to flourish.

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