That may seem like a strange question, and when I ask it of my MBAs, I suspect they regard it as an exercise in the pedagogical pastime Guess What Teacher Is Thinking. Still I ask it, for I hope it prompts my students to think about the kinds of problems capitalism is equipped to solve as well as those that are beyond its compass.
This is hardly a matter of idle speculation, especially for those who have good reason to believe that they will someday enjoy a disproportionate amount of the system’s spoils. Those fortunate individuals sometimes need to be reminded that free markets, however mighty, will not mend their marriage, relieve their cold, or stop their brother-in-law from bragging about his golf game. Indeed, there are plenty of things capitalism can’t do, and reflecting on them is a good way of distinguishing what it can do—and what it should.
Naturally, what capitalism can and should do are not one and the same. The first is a technical matter best left to economists; the second is more of an ideological affair, the province of moral and political philosophy. The distinction is an important one, but it tends to fade whenever one believes that free markets will solve most any problem: moral, social, and political as well as economic. If capitalism can do anything, so the thinking goes, then it should do everything.
Now, with the kind of intellectual prodding the question above intends, almost no one honestly believes that capitalism can, or should, do everything. Yet up until recently, it passed for conventional wisdom, in the United States and throughout most of the developed world, that capitalism could do most things, that the obvious solution to nearly any pressing problem of social organization was freer trade, fewer regulations, and far less government intervention. more>
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