Capitalism: Learned from Experience, Not School

The majority of people interviewed for this class seem to have formed their ideas about capitalism from personal experience rather than from a historical perspective. Most people concur that capitalism is free enterprise without government influence or control. What people do not tend to agree on is whether capitalism benefits everyone. The people interviewed can be split into three groups based on their approval or disapproval of capitalism: a passionately enthusiastic group, an apathetic group, and an anti-capitalist group.

The most vocal group touts capitalism as the American way that is the most natural fit for humans. They argue that to be anti-capitalist is to be being anti-American because our country was founded on capitalist principles. Certainly, Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution showed how participating in the market for British goods (and then boycotting them) helped to shape American independence. Because it is natural to strive for success and to provide for oneself and one’s family, the members of this pro-capitalist group argue that capitalism is a totally natural extension of human nature. These passionate capitalists particularly like the fact that everyone has a chance to succeed in capitalism; if someone fails, there is a good possibility that it is their own fault.

Another large group accepts capitalism for two reasons: One, because there is no clearly better alternative, or two, because they do not really care that much one way or the other. When asked about alternatives, this apathetic group of people usually mention communism or socialism and immediately follow by saying they are bad alternatives that are proven failures. This group does not particularly love capitalism but don’t particularly hate it either. To this indifferent group, capitalism is merely the way we do things here, and they’ll accept that.

The third group, the smallest, outright dislikes capitalism. The people in this group may have had fewer opportunities for success in the capitalist system, or they may sympathize with those who have had bad luck. People who identify with this group point to the exploitative nature of capitalism and the greed and self-interest it creates and promotes. As a class, we discussed the highly exploitative side of capitalism through slavery in Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Many in this group feel that the government should take some action in ensuring all people have equal opportunities. While many in this group would be willing to explore alternatives to capitalism, there is no clear consensus on what that alternative would look like.

Throughout the interviews, a common thread seems to be answers based on personal experience rather than a historical understanding of capitalism. Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? There seems to be a distinct lack of formal education on capitalism and its history, but life experience seems to provide an understanding that is adequate for most people. Those who have benefited from capitalism see no reason for change and those who have not done as well wish for some alternative.

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