Yes, you read that title correctly.
For us to make this point, we need to be very clear about what capitalism is and what it isn’t. This is especially true given the term tends to come with a lot of baggage.
This is what capitalism is not, at least as we use the term in this essay. Capitalism is not: consumerism, materialism, greed, exploitation, or even the pursuit of wealth and power. Those things may show up, but they are not what it fundamentally is (but more on this later).
So what is it? Put simply: Capitalism is freedom. Freedom in a particular area of life — that of commerce and trade.
Capitalism creates the space for (allows for) creation and movement in that particular area (dimension, domain) of life. Capitalism is separation of commerce and state, in the same way that freedom of religion is separation of church and state.
To be honest, we don’t even like the term “capitalism.” We prefer “free markets”, “free enterprise”, or “freedom of commerce.” Those phrases better point at the phenomenon that we’re referring to.
Freedom of commerce or capitalism or free markets or whatever you want to call it is not just an abstract concept, it impacts you every day. Freedom of commerce allows you to buy what you want, sell what you want, work for who you want, and hire who you want. It allows for the hundreds of voluntary interactions (transactions) that you have every week, even something as small as buying a cup coffee from your favorite local cafe.
Because freedom of commerce is space to move and create, it is not any of the particulars that may occur in a free society (such as buying a cup of coffee). In other words, it is the context of freedom itself and none of the content.
This same principle is obvious with the freedom of religion. The freedom of religion says nothing about any particular religion. It doesn’t say how many religions there should be. It doesn’t say whether those religions can be large or small or anything about the number of followers. It doesn’t say who or how to worship. It doesn’t say what the religious leader should or shouldn’t do.
Here is a wild thought: You could have a society that is entirely atheist (with no religions!) and still have freedom of religion.
Think of it this way: freedom of religion has nothing to do with Catholicism, other than that it creates the space for (allows for) it to exist in America.
It is this same fundamental principle but in a different area of life when we talk about freedom of commerce (capitalism). Freedom of commerce says nothing about any particular business or transaction. It doesn’t say whether the business can be large or small. It doesn’t say how many employees or customers it should have. It doesn’t say what the product or service is. It doesn’t even say what the price is, what the terms of contract are, or what to pay people.
Here is a wild thought: You could have a society with no business, trade, or even money and still have freedom of commerce! Maybe those people spend all day meditating or building temples, but the freedom would be there nonetheless.
Since freedom of commerce says nothing about either price or cost, it in this sense that:
Capitalism has nothing to do with profit, other than that it creates the space for (allows for) it to exist.
But it’s worth mentioning that people are going to be assholes in all areas of life and commerce is no exception. Without a doubt, some men and women will use force or fraud to forward their interests.
So who protects everyone in a capitalist society from force and fraud? The same people who protect us from force and fraud in every other area of life: the criminal justice system!
In early 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe exposed the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Criminal charges were brought against five Catholic priests in the Boston area. All five were convicted and sentenced to prison. The victims numbered in the hundreds. And as the press increased and the years went on, the number of sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic Church reached into the thousands.
Without a doubt, the lives of the victims will never be the same. This is a tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. And while this was happening:
— No one asserted that freedom of religion had “caused” this to happen.
— No one asserted that someone who supports freedom of religion in any way condoned, endorsed, or allowed the priests’ crimes.
— The blame (responsibility) was rightly placed on the priests and on the Catholic Church (for covering it up). The freedom of religion was intact and “blameless.” No one rallied to regulate, limit, or restrict the freedom of religion.
— If the government (criminal justice system) had let the priests go innocently and with no repercussions that would have been a failure of their duties, not of freedom of religion.
It’s worth repeating: No one would say that someone who defends freedom of religion in any way supported what happened in the Catholic Church.
It’s the same with freedom of commerce. Any individuals, groups, or organizations who are using force or fraud should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But supporting freedom of commerce is not supporting these men and women committing crimes.
Don’t blame capitalism. Blame criminals. And hold the government accountable for justice.
A free society protects creation and movement in all areas of life.
Stand for freedom of religion.
Stand for freedom of commerce.
Stand for a free society.
This essay was co-authored with Jessica Swerbilow -Jessica Swerbilow is the Clinical Administrator at an agency that supports individuals with developmental disabilities. She has her Master's of Social Work from the University of Southern California. She is based in San Diego.