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How Capitalism Became a Threat to Democracy

Since the 1980s, American capitalism has been transformed into a winner-takes-all economy in which one or a few technologically dominant firms monopolize each sector at the expense of consumers, workers, and overall growth. And with permanent market power comes the kind of political power that is antithetical to democracy.

STANFORD – Does free-market capitalism buttress democracy, or does it unleash anti-democratic forces? This question first emerged in the Age of Enlightenment, when capitalism was viewed optimistically and welcomed as a vehicle of liberation from the rigid feudal order. Many envisioned an equal-opportunity society of small producers and consumers, where no one would have undue market power, and where prices would be determined by the “invisible hand.” Under such conditions, democracy and capitalism are two sides of the same coin.

Domestic propaganda in the United States has pushed the same optimistic vision over the past century, aiming to convince voters that free-market capitalism is essential to the “American Way,” and that their liberty depends on supporting unfettered free enterprise and distrusting government. But economic developments in recent decades suggest that we should re-examine such beliefs.

To see why, allow me first to clarify some background ideas about what I call technological competition among innovating companies seeking to amass market power. Such competition differs from conventional price competition by producing only one or a few winners, rather than permitting all firms to survive with lower profits.