To me, capitalism is simply the absence of force in human economic relations. If you wanted people to be able to deal with each other freely by voluntary agreement, you would get private property and capitalism.
It is not an “ism” at all.
Alright. I have to fend off some common attacks. Capitalism requires private property. All property is theft. How does someone acquire legitimate title to property?
In law school I learned the first way was appropriation from nature. Sort of like mixing your labor with something that was freely available in nature to anyone who could take it. Deer hunting, for example. No one says the hunter who bags a deer on public land is not entitled to his venison chops. Or if I picked up a tree branch and carved it into an exquisite statute. I took something from nature, available to anyone, and made it valuable by mixing in my skill and effort and then own it.
In the field of real estate, mixing your labor with nature is adverse possession. If you take a tract of land (lawyer talk) that someone else is not actively using and use it like an owner and your use is notorious (not hidden – visible to all), exclusive (you act as if it is ours – prevent others from using it) and continuous (for a period of years), the land becomes your property. That is still the law in the USA. It has been the law in common law countries for centuries. You created private property by taking something from nature and mixing in your labor and you made it your property.
The other way to legitimately acquire property is to get it in a voluntary exchange from the previous owner. Buy it.
Here is a problem. I buy a house and land from “X”. Only he got it from someone who got it from someone who stole it from an Indian tribe. I don’t have good title! If you are forever open to examining the providence of title, or you are willing to accept new evidence about the validity of title forever, then no one has good title.
The solution is you pick some date that all titles to property existent on that date are recognized as valid. No secure property title means you might find that someone else owns the land you just spent millions to develop. Do the Indians who sold Manhattan have a claim to the property or do the Indians who lived on Manhattan before them and were forced off by Indian war? In the future will we discover an even earlier user of that land who lost it by war? One must simply set a date and say all titles to land at this date are legitimate no matter how arrived at – otherwise it is a never ending examination and no one can invest to improve land sure tha tthey own it.
All property is theft from an absolute justice point of view. In practicality, as the centuries of unjust appropriation of land recede most property becomes something purchased instead of stolen. Cosmic justice is impossible for mortals. I would like capitalism and private property with perfectly just determination of who has title to every square inch of the Earth, but it ain’t going to happen.
So, once title to property is established, capitalism means you do not have to enter into any agreement that you do not want to. Generally, that means you do not enter into any agreement that does not benefit you. So each agreement, each transaction, everything, makes you better off.
Another objection. The hungry man cannot negotiate to voluntarily trade with the rich man. The hungry man has to take what he is offered. The sick patient cannot negotiate price with the life saving doctor. The average intelligence man cannot negotiate fairly with the genius.
Well, your needs and limitations are just facts of nature. If I develop a shopping center at great expense on land I own and an earthquake destroys it, nature took its toll. I can insure or otherwise provide for it, but it does not mean other people have to make up my profit. My misfortune is mine, not an argument that people should not be able to make free agreements that they desire designed to improve their economic standing. I may have less freedom to contract because of circumstances. I may need money more than the other party. That is no reason to destroy freedom to contract which does so much good.
So if you set aside the argument “all property is theft” which really means human knowledge is limited and imperfect. If you set aside the unequal bargaining power argument, which really means, we won’t allow some people to act freely because of our paternalistic attitudes. Then you get capitalism. Legally protected ownership of private property and the ability to voluntarily make enforceable agreements with others regarding it.
In relatively capitalistic twentieth century America, very average people progressed their material well being fantastically. They did not need smarter people to protect them by taking control of their lives. The middle class grew to undreamed of proportions. Human kind no longer was a small rich elite and a giant poor underclass, as it was for most of the history of mankind.
A large middle class was a product of free market capitalism. It was an American phenomena for tha most part. More socialistic mixed economies failed at that.