Economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned, and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. Capitalism has been dominant in the Western world since the end of mercantilism. It was fostered by the Reformation, which sanctioned hard work and frugality, and by the rise of industry during the Industrial Revolution, especially the English textile industry (16th–18th centuries). Unlike earlier systems, capitalism used the excess of production over consumption to enlarge productive capacity rather than investing it in economically unproductive enterprises such as palaces or cathedrals. The strong national states of the mercantilist era provided the social conditions, such as uniform monetary systems and legal codes, necessary for the rise of capitalism. The ideology of classical capitalism was expressed in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), and Smith's free-market theories were widely adopted in the 19th century. In the 20th century the Great Depression effectively ended laissez-faire economics in most countries, but the demise of the state-run command economies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (see communism) and the adoption of some free-market principles in China left capitalism unrivaled (if not untroubled) by the beginning of the 21st century.
Variants of CAPITALISM
capitalism or free-market economy or free-enterprise system
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on capitalism, visit Britannica.com.
Seen & Heard
What made you look up capitalism? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.