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What America Needs to Understand About Capitalism

The United States has the resources to create a better capitalist system, and it is clear which policies can improve wellbeing today and create a more equitable and sustainable economy for future generations. Now the country needs to elect a president and Congress that can build this system.

BERKELEY – The candidates in the 2020 US presidential race are proposing an array of economic policies frequently described as either free-market or socialist. These labels often confuse the American public. In particular, capitalism is widely – and wrongly – understood to be synonymous with free markets. In fact, it includes all economic systems with private ownership of property, from free markets to social democracy.

These various forms of capitalism require basic rules governing how markets operate, such as protection of property and the rule of law. Most capitalist societies also have social programs to protect the most vulnerable. Governments in capitalist economies therefore face two fundamental choices. First, they can either set market rules for the common good, or delegate this task to big business under the guise of “free markets.” Second, they can design universal social programs with the aim of reducing inequality and protecting the environment, or scale them back in order to minimize government spending in these areas.

The choices governments make strongly influence levels of inequality, greenhouse-gas emissions, and overall wellbeing. To evaluate the Democratic candidates’ economic policies properly, therefore, we must understand their proposals for structuring markets and creating or expanding social programs.