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Capitalism is an economic system where things (property, for example) are owned by people or an individual, not by a government or communities. People have to barter or work for money so they can buy things they need or want, such as food. Capitalism mostly has a free market economy, which means people buy and sell things by their own judgment. In most countries in the world today the economy also has a degree of planning, done by the government or by trade unions. They are actually called "mixed economies" instead of completely free markets. Some people disagree on whether capitalism is a good idea, or how much of capitalism is a good idea.
The word comes from "capital", meaning something of value. This can be money ("financial capital") or any other goods that can be traded. The word "capital" originally comes from the Latin word caput, meaning "head." It was used to mean how many "head" of cattle a rich person owned, in days long ago when cattle were used as money. In fact, the words "capital" and "cattle" both come from caput.
The philosopher Adam Smith's book, The Wealth of Nations, was an important book that developed the ideas of capitalism and the free market. The word "capitalism" was not used until the late 19th century.
Buying, selling, working, and hiring
In capitalism, people may sell or lend their property, and other people may buy or borrow it. If one person wants to buy, and another person wants to sell to them, they do not need to get permission from higher power. People can have a market (buying and selling with each other) without anyone else telling them to. People who own capital are sometimes called capitalists (people who support capitalism are called capitalists, too). They can hire anyone who wants to work in their factories, shops or lands for them for the pay they offer.
The word capital can be used to mean things that produce more things or money. For example, lands, factories, shops, tools and machines are capital. If someone has money that can be invested, that money is capital too.
This is different from many older economic systems. In feudalism, most people were serfs and had to work for the people who owned the land they lived on. In mercantilism, the government makes it hard to buy things from other countries. In many countries with mixed economies (part capitalism and part socialism) there are laws about what you can buy or sell, or what prices you can charge, or whom you can hire or fire.
An investment is when people invest (give) their money in things. People can put their money together to buy or build things, even if they are too big for one person to make alone. The people who invest get to be the owners of what they buy or build together. The stock market lets people buy and sell investments.
Investing is important to capitalism. The word "capitalist" can mean two things: it can mean someone who likes capitalism; but it can also mean someone who invests. For example, a venture capitalist invests in new businesses.
People who start businesses, or invest in businesses, can make a lot of money. A business sells things that people want. The investors make extra money, which is called profit. Investors can take their profit and invest it in more businesses, or in making the business bigger. The investors can get more and more profit if the businesses are successful.
People who disagree
Socialists and communists are people who do not support capitalism. They say it hurts workers, because businesses make more money by selling things than they pay to the workers who make the things. Businessmen become rich while workers remain poor and exploited (taken advantage of). They also argue society would be more efficient if people thought less about competing against one another for their own interests and thought more of working together for the overall good of society. Another argument is that each person has a right to basic needs (such as food and shelter). Within capitalism, sometimes people might not get everything they need to live.
Karl Marx was a famous communist philosopher from Germany. He wrote a famous book called The Capital (or Das Kapital in German). He said that capitalism would go away after workers decided to take over the government in a revolution. There were violent communist revolutions in many countries. Many people were killed because of this. But capitalism did not go away, and most of these communist systems have collapsed and do not exist today, or else they have become more capitalist. Some people think that communism in those countries did not work because Marx's ideas, though nice in thought, did not really work. Others think that communist countries collapsed because of the attacks (military, political and economic) from capitalist countries.
Anarchists (that are not anarcho-capitalists) do not support capitalism either. They do not think workers should take the government, but that there should be no government at all. They think that communism failed because the communists set up dictatorships that said that they would rule in the name of workers, instead of letting workers organize themselves freely.
People who agree
There are different words for people who support capitalism. In many parts of the world, these people are called either conservatives or liberals (especially market liberals). In the United States, the word "liberal" can mean someone whose beliefs lean toward socialism - what other countries might call a social liberal. Libertarian is a word that in America and some other countries means someone who wants the government to have little or no power to tell people what to buy or sell.
Capitalists usually say that people who are poor should get the help they need from charities instead of the state.
People who support capitalism also have disagreements. Most people agree that capitalism works better if the government keeps people from stealing other people's things. If people could steal anything, then nobody would want to buy anything.
In most countries, the government does more than that. It tries to make sure that people buy and sell fairly and that employment is fair. Because the government takes a lot of money in taxes, it also buys a lot of things and gives a lot of money away. It spends money on guns and ships for the military, on science research in universities, and on schools and libraries. It also gives money to people who do not have jobs, and to businesses that the political leaders think are important. Sometimes the government gives money to people just because those people support the politicians who are in office. When the government is in charge of part of the economy, this is called a "mixed economy."
A few people think that people can protect themselves without any government. Instead of having laws against stealing, people could protect their own things, or agree to pay other people such as arbitrators, insurers, and private defenders to protect them. This belief is called "anarcho-capitalism." These people think that the government is a thief, because it takes taxes away from people against their will and keeps them from making agreements between themselves.