What is a Capitalist?

Are you for or against capitalism? Doesn't that depend on how you define it? If any reader of this publication believed capitalism were an evil, greedy, law-breaking corruption of society, similar to abuses in Pope Francis's native Argentina, he would be against it. Conservative do not tolerate crony capitalism (that is, government intervention in business).

Most voters -- who cancel out your vote -- have very different ideas than you do. Buried assumptions and widely-varying definitions are being exposed by a recent debate over Christianity, socialism, and capitalism. Controversy sparked by Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation and Rush Limbaugh's criticism has revealed enormous differences in people's assumptions about what the words "capitalism" and "socialism" actually mean.

Your author asserts at the outset that the true definition of a capitalist is anyone who places his capital (money, tools, equipment, property, real estate, etc.) at risk, with no guarantee of making any money or even getting that capital back, in the hopes of earning enough money to pay back the cost of the investment and then go on to earn a profit for his troubles. It can also mean an advocate for such behavior as a preferable national system.

Capitalism is the only approach that can bring prosperity to humanity, especially the poor and disadvantaged, because in free enterprise, businesses cannot force anyone to buy their products or services. Companies must offer products or services that benefit society more than the purchase price or the capitalist will go out of business. This discipline of the marketplace is why government bailouts are poison.

Only transactions which produce a net benefit to society will occur -- others will be blocked by consumer choice. Freedom is the essential ingredient in this magic "invisible hand." As soon as government bails out bad actors or plays favorites, this pivotal factor of voluntariness in purchasing is destroyed. Of course, if businesses lie or commit fraud, voluntary, fully-informed transactions are also destroyed.

While the naïve observer may see money coming in the door, a business has to earn a lot of money just to repay the original investment, before earning any "return." And then any "profit" may serve only as the modest income that the owner needs to put food on his family's table, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads.

Based on a Bachelor's degree in Finance, your author's proposed definition makes crony capitalism not capitalism at all. It is a big problem and a monstrous evil. But as the comedy character Barney Simpson remarks, "It's not gambling if you are sure you are going to win." If politicians are corrupting the marketplace in favor of their cronies, they are not truly risking their capital. The game is rigged.

Under various strongly-held myths, liberal Christians and other critics of capitalism assume that:

(1) Capitalists are (always) wealthy robber barons. That is, small businessmen cannot be capitalists. Only huge businesses, only the very rich, are capitalist.

My Uncle Don, now recently lost to us, put his life savings into a convenience store (unaffiliated) in Fort Myers, Florida many years ago. That side of the family, especially, had never had much money. But Uncle Don was suddenly making money hand over fist, largely because of his smart marketing ideas and very hard work and long hours. Children helped. Then a thunderstorm came along and the roof collapsed due to shoddy construction. Defects undetectable from outward appearance gave way. No building in Southern Florida should succumb to a rainstorm, which is part of normal life. Uncle Don was wiped out financially. He sued but got ripped off in court with an outrageously bad legal decision. He put his life savings at risk, worked hard, and yet he still lost it all anyway.

However, my Uncle Don was not a capitalist according to liberal Christians because he was a small businessman, not a rich tycoon with a corporate jet, a mansion, and a yacht.

(2) Capitalists are greedy. This definition of a capitalist, the very concept, excludes any possibility of giving to the poor or other charities. A capitalist is not one seeking to achieve but someone hoarding wealth, for no purpose. Vast numbers of Americans -- who vote -- believe that giving to the poor is totally inconsistent with being a capitalist. Of course most of the largest charitable foundations in America were funded by wealthy capitalists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford.

(3) Many insist that a capitalist is someone who hires employees. Karl Marx slandered capitalists as exploiting workers. Therefore many Americans have completely adopted a Marxist analysis of the economy.

So suppose you invest $100,000 of your life savings to buy a premium limousine, stock it with supplies, pay for advertising, etc., to start up a limousine service. You can't be a capitalist because you are not exploiting any workers. You will have to run a lot of limo trips to earn enough money to pay back the capital you placed at risk. But capitalists are only those who exploit workers.

The first Pope, Peter, ran a fishing business with Andrew and the Sons of Zebedee. They had to catch a lot of fish just to pay back the cost of several boats, nets, etc. But left-wing Christians argue that if they weren't exploiting workers for hire they weren't capitalists. In fact, some argued to this author that only Karl Marx's definition of a capitalist is relevant because Karl Marx critiqued capitalism.

(4) Capitalists are "evil." Millions of voters see Scrooge from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol as the cultural epitome of a capitalist. Those views are obviously vague, undefined, foggy, and irrational. But it is assumed that to be a capitalist is to be -- obviously -- evil. So when I wrote that "Jesus is a Capitalist," that produced a furious reaction of sputtering outrage. Seeking to engage commenters to gain improved mutual understanding often revealed a lack of any clear ideas, except that capitalists are bad so therefore Jesus can't be a capitalist.

Varying assumptions are actually driving public attitudes and political votes, especially by voters who pay very little attention to politics (sometimes called "low-information voters"). Understanding what these voters don't understand is the first step to trying to restore some rationality to our nation's conversations and politics.

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