Government and Capitalism in the U.S.

Department of Political Science, University of Colorado  •  Spring 2015

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In no time in history have the principles of democratic capitalism been so widely embraced. Both here in the United States and abroad, a commitment to principles of free trade, open markets, and unfettered competition has prevailed—unquestioned by many. And as history has shown, this commitment to free market principles and the liberalization of global markets has commonly entailed the promotion of democratic ideals and the political institutions necessary to support capitalist economies—including, for instance, the protection of private property, limited government powers, an emphasis on individual liberties, and so forth. The benefits of capitalism are often taken for granted, trumpeted as producing enormous wealth and improving quality of life, advancing scientific knowledge, promoting peace, providing unique opportunities for social mobility and etc. However, in the wake of the recent recession, this class explores some of the shortcomings of capitalism and the globalization of free market principles: including environmental degradation, stark inequalities in wealth and opportunity, threat to indigenous peoples, and the concentration of political power among the economic elite (or the erosion of democracy).

There are three broad sections to this class. In the first section, we examine the historical foundations of modern capitalist political economy, the different forms of capitalism that exist, and the plausibility of various alternatives economic systems. In the second, we consider how capitalism in the United States has changed over time—perhaps more specifically, how the relationship between economics and politics in the U.S. and the influence of economic special interests on the policy process have changed over time. This section will also explore how the U.S. has promoted the globalization of liberal capitalism. In the third section, we critically evaluate the merit or desirability of capitalism: we explore various philosophical problems with modern capitalism, determine whether these problems can be overcome or are inherent to capitalism itself, and judge whether the benefits of the globalization of free market principles outweigh the costs.