My first interviewee is a family member named Chris, a forty-seven year old IT salesman who works in Arlington. His father was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and throughout much of the Cold War, so he grew up mostly on various military posts, particularly Kwajalein, where he attended high school during the Reagan years. In college, he was a member of College Republicans, though his politics have since shifted. He received an MBA in Finance from Georgia State, and currently works selling software.
How would you define capitalism?
“An economic system in which allegedly free markets are used to allocate capital and resources in the most efficient manner.”
Can you expand on that “allegedly”?
“In theory, free markets work as advertised. But in practice, for it to work, all parties have to be on equal ground. In reality, people game the system and some parties have access to better information or resources than others.”
What is your personal experience with capitalism?
“I have lived in a capitalist system my entire life, much of it during the Cold War between capitalism and communism. I also have an MBA in Finance, so aside from living under capitalism, I’ve studied how a capitalist society works in some depth.”
What are alternative systems to capitalism, and do you think any of them are workable systems?
“Communism and socialism are the two other main systems that come to mind. Other than that, maybe earlier barter-based systems. The experience of many countries in Europe, such the Scandinavian countries that practice social democracy, suggests that socialism to an extent can work. I think a free-market approach works better in some sectors of the economy, and in others, more socialistic practices are better.”
How does capitalism influence America?
“Capitalism is just an economic system meant to efficiently distribute capital, but for Americans it’s a political and moral issue. Actually, even an article of faith almost. Capitalism arises from a sort of Puritan ethic of hard work and raising yourself up, when in reality usually government or other people were involved. ”
Do you think the Cold War sort of amplifies capitalism as an American ideology?
“Sort of. I think politicians and business interests used the Cold War to advance their agendas, which leads to the Cold War view of capitalism.”
How do you think social issues have been affected by capitalism?
“I think the hyper-capitalistic attitude in the United States has led us to try and use market-based solutions for social issues, though the Democrat Party has generally resisted these sorts of ideas.”
Can you give some examples?
“Faith-based charity initiatives, which are usually encouraged by the government. Most churches function as businesses and do these initiatives in order to continue being considered charities. Obamacare is an attempt at providing market incentives to fix the problems of healthcare, though with socialist underpinnings in the government’s role. ”
What are capitalism’s origins, either for America or globally?
“I think the American state’s version of capitalism originally comes from the writings of Adam Smith and the New England, Puritan work ethic.”
Do you think capitalism has changed over time?
“There used to be restraints on capitalism, which is just intended to efficiently manage capital. Government used to prevent capitalism from overly benefiting the wealthy few. In recent times the restraints have been loosened, hence current wealth gap in this country. ”
Do you think capitalism as a system is more natural for humans than other systems?
“No. Humans are naturally tribal, and maybe even sort of socialistic. Capitalism is not natural and only appears relatively recently in human history.”
Do you think there’s a reason capitalism has sort of stuck as the primary economic system?
“I think it’s the success of particularly the US as a capitalist country that makes people think capitalism is better. It’s an example of correlation and causation though because the US rises economically after WWII when the competition has been invaded and bombed. Like, I was watching a Ken Burns series a while back, and it was talking about how the image of Americans moving to the west in a sort of entrepreneurial way was actually backed by the government with the homestead grants in the 1800s. Capitalism isn’t really actually better; again, I think a combination of systems is probably best.”
How has capitalism been taught to you during your education?
“Largely as a positive, not surprising since the Cold War was going on. I had one undergrad course taught by an actual self-proclaimed communist professor, but overall, especially in grad school, capitalism was taught as a net positive.”
One of the things I take away from this interview is that not everyone who grew up in the Reagan era and embraced the conservative, pro-market political spirit of the time has necessarily maintained that view in light of events in the 21st century. Chris has a relatively critical view of capitalism for someone who came of age during America’s much-vaunted triumph in the Cold War and was a card-carrying member of the Republican Party. Perceptions of capitalism can shift for individuals and perhaps on a wider scale as well.