Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, a price system, private property and the recognition of property rights, voluntary exchange and wage labor. In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investments are determined by owners of wealth, property, or production ability in capital and financial markets—whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.
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Economists, historians, political economists and sociologists have adopted different perspectives in their analyses of capitalism and have recognized various forms of it in practice. These include laissez-faire or free-market capitalism, state capitalism and welfare capitalism. Different forms of capitalism feature varying degrees of free markets, public ownership, obstacles to free competition and state-sanctioned social policies. The degree of competition in markets and the role of intervention and regulation as well as the scope of state ownership vary across different models of capitalism. The extent to which different markets are free and the rules defining private property are matters of politics and policy. Most of the existing capitalist economies are mixed economies that combine elements of free markets with state intervention and in some cases economic planning.
Market economies have existed under many forms of government and in many different times, places and cultures. Modern capitalist societies developed in Western Europe in a process that led to the Industrial Revolution. Capitalist systems with varying degrees of direct government intervention have since become dominant in the Western world and continue to spread. Economic growth is a characteristic tendency of capitalist economies.
Critics of capitalism argue that it concentrates power in the hands of a minority capitalist class that exists through the exploitation of the majority working class and their labor; prioritizes profit over social good, natural resources and the environment; is an engine of inequality, corruption and economic instabilities; is anti-democratic; and that many are not able to access its purported benefits and freedoms, such as freely investing. Supporters argue that it provides better products and innovation through competition, promotes pluralism and decentralization of power, disperses wealth to people who are able to invest in useful enterprises based on market demands, allows for a flexible incentive system where efficiency and sustainability are priorities to protect capital, creates strong economic growth, and yields productivity and prosperity that greatly benefit society.