Toward a New Lexicon of Liberty

As the Reason Foundation’s Emily Ekins wrote back in February, “A recent Reason-Rupe poll asked Americans to rate their favorability towards capitalism, socialism, a free market economy, and a government managed economy.” Quite unsurprisingly, of these choices, Americans most favored free markets, with almost 7 out of 10 respondents reporting a positive opinion of a free market economy. Capitalism was not held in such high regard, significantly lower with 55% of respondents reporting a positive view. Opinions of a government managed economy were lowest at 30%, and 36% of those polled had a positive view of socialism. The results of this poll are interesting and have important, far-reaching implications for those of us concerned with spreading the message of human freedom.

The results hint that for most people around the world, “free market” just isn’t strictly synonymous with “capitalism,” which is exactly what individualist anarchists and more left-leaning free marketers have been saying for a very long time. Why should libertarians continue to alienate people, repelling them from a consistent philosophy of liberty, with the idiosyncratic insistence that “capitalism” is the economic system we favor? The term “capitalism” has come to connote economic injustice, exploitation, and elite theft of shared natural resources — and, in this author’s view, all quite rightly. As the old saying goes, words mean what people think they mean. In point of fact, many historical free market libertarians have opposed capitalism as a system antithetical to the principles of a free market, a fact that certainly almost no American knows.

Libertarianism is viewed in the mainstream political conversation as the ideology of capitalism, of corporate greed and a toxic expression of globalization, McDonalds, Nike, and all the rest nodding along to rote libertarian defenses of sweatshops, phony and politically-corrupted “privatization,” and free trade agreements that include stringent intellectual property provisions. It’s really no wonder that people who care generally about fairness and about helping the poor and less fortunate avoid libertarianism at all costs, despite the fact that we libertarians actually have very good explanations for economic injustices and the realities of concentrated wealth. As a potential source of edification both for libertarians and for those we hope to reach with our ideas, here are two definitions of “capitalism” offered by the 19th century libertarian Joshua King Ingalls:

CAPITALISM.—That system of social or industrial institutions by which an exploiteur is enabled to appropriate to himself the increase resulting from industry, which belongs, and which would otherwise go, to the laborer, or be returned to the land. An abnormal relation of labor to commerce, which subjects labor to the control of an owner of the land, or of any property or goods for which the land will exchange.

Capitalism is the systematic reduction of the many to want, that advantage may be taken of their needs.

Given free and equal access to natural resources such as land, given an open opportunity to compete unimpeded by class laws that protect and subsidize certain professions and industries, and given the ability to freely explore and employ scientific laws unhindered by copyright and patent law, a free market begins to look like something very different from capitalism. And this is good news for libertarians. We don’t have to cede the moral high ground to the state whenever issues of economic inequality or injustice are raised. Rather, we can quite confidently demonstrate that when we finally try a free market, we won’t have to worry about capitalism or its many defects.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory