NEW YORK CITY, New York – Last week, American artist Steve Lambert displayed a large board in Time Square that presented the following statement: “Capitalism Works for Me.” Respondents were able to choose true or false and the large board tallied the score. After five days, 522 respondents had said the statement was true and 599 had said it was false. This represents a fairly equal distribution of those people who believe capitalism is working for them and those who do not. But larger questions loom: what is capitalism and how is it perceived by people of different classes, races and lifestyles?
Capitalism is a socio-economic system that combines the ideas of private ownership of property, free markets and economic individualism. The essence is that each individual is free to pursue his or her own economic self interest and the accumulation of property and capital.
These individuals come together in open and free markets to exchange goods and services at prices that are determined by the parties to the transaction. The system has prevailed for more than 150 years, catalyzed in the West by the industrial and technological revolutions and the expansion of free trade.
Without a doubt, capitalism has fueled scientific and technological research as individuals and corporations have sought to produce better products and services to exchange on the open markets. And the core component of this capitalistic fuel is profit. In its simplest terms, profit is whatever remains after costs have been deducted from revenues. Thus, the capitalist is incentivized to minimize costs and maximize revenues.
In the United States and most of the Western world, capitalism has been revered dogma since the Industrial Revolution. But a series of recent economic crises caused by deregulation and corporate welfare has people rethinking the costs and benefits of capitalism.
Richard Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, recently wrote: “The public increasingly ignores over-the-top celebrations of capitalism as humanity’s peak achievement, God’s choice, perpetual prosperity generator or guarantor of individual freedom.”
These questions arise as people realize that capitalism is not working for every individual. Though economic individualism may be good in theory, it can also be dangerous in practice. First, not every individual possesses the same opportunity to accumulate capital or acquire the means of production.
Because of this, these individuals are often left at the behest of the property owner, earning wages in return for their labor. Those that are unable or unwilling to work at the behest of the owners are left with very few options to provide for their basic sustenance.
It would be interesting to hear some of the stories of those who responded to Steve Lambert’s “Capitalism Works for Me.” If anything, his artistic expression should force us to admit one fact: capitalism may be working for some, but capitalism is not working for all.
– Daniel Bonasso