This media stereotype is so persistent, so one-sided, and so misleading that an extended definition of capitalism is in order. First a quick bit of housekeeping. Yes, there are greedy wicked capitalists—much as there are greedy wicked musicians, greedy wicked landscape architects, greedy wicked manicurists, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum—just as there are good people in each of these professions.
Now onto what capitalism is and isn’t. Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private (rather than state) ownership of businesses, a system where investments are determined by private decision, and where prices, production, and the distribution of goods and services are determined mainly by free choices in a free market overseen by the rule of law and stable property rights. In cultural terms, most of us are what you might call functional capitalists. At least when we’re not wrestling with theoretical abstractions, we buy, sell, trade, invest, donate; and we much prefer to do so free from the dictates of one or more government bureaucrats.
Widespread capitalism first arose in the Christian West, beginning in the city states of medieval northern Italy and spreading from there throughout Europe, taking particularly strong root among the Dutch and English. Christianity doesn’t entail any one particular economic system, and capitalism doesn’t require a Christian culture. At the same time, though, both Christian and non-Christian historians have explained capitalism’s origin in the Christianized West by pointing to the Judeo-Christian tradition’s commitment to property rights and transcendent morality, to its idea of humans as creative stewards made in the image of a rational, creative God, and to its view of history, which is linear and forward-looking rather than circular and fatalistic.
As for The Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the Native Americans for which he is a stand-in, America’s great sin against them wasn’t that they were offered capitalism. It’s that they were instead subject to the enervating socialism of the reservation system. There is much more to that complex, tragic story, of course, but part of understanding it is understanding the essence of free enterprise—otherwise known by the dirtiest word in Hollywood: capitalism.
Read Memo to Tinseltown.