There was a poll released today showing that only 53% of American's believe capitalism to be a superior economic system. 20% preferred socialism, and the rest weren't sure.
As expected, right wing talk show hosts were having a field day with this. It's the downfall of America; we're half way to communism.
I think a little perspective is needed.
First, while I suppose that economists may use the terms capitalism and socialism with a clear understanding of what they mean, I think that most people are somewhat fuzzy on the concepts. Polling Americans about economics is a somewhat ill-fated activity. Americans use credit cards to buy pizzas and go to the movies. Any nation where large percentages of the population will go into debt to entertain themselves is a nation that collectively knows nothing about managing its money.
Second, the reality is that it's possible for a nation to be both capitalistic and socialistic at the same time. These aren't like matter and antimatter, destroying one another on contact. It's more like a sliding scale with pure libertarian capitalism at one end and outright communism at the other. America's needle has been sitting in the middle of these extremes for a long time. Business has never had a truly free hand in America, nor should it. Also, I think a lot of businesses would go into a full blown panic if the government really decided to get out of their affairs. If the US decided tomorrow that our agricultural policy was: grow whatever you want, sell it where ever you can, at whatever price you can get, you would see shares plummet in every stock even vaguely tied to food.
Finally, I find in the worship of capitalism flaws similar to the worship of libertarianism. (Keep in mind, I am a libertarian.) Both systems are built around a fundamental idealogy that says that if government would get out of the way, people would behave rationally to further their own self interests. They would make better investments, use better judgment when purchasing products, and generally be able to police themselves. The flaw, of course, is that substantial pluralities of people don't behave rationally, even when there are strong incentives to do so. For instance, for pretty much all my adult life, people have been able to invest money in IRAs. It saves in taxes, it's safe, and there are banks in every town in America that will be glad to set one up for you. Yet, only about 14% of people choose to contribute to a traditional IRA. For the record, I'm not part of that 14%. I've either been to concerned about spending my money here and now, or I've found the fine print in the brochures at the bank a little daunting, or I've just decided that I don't really care if I'm a millionaire when I'm sixty-five, since by then Cthulhu will return and end the world, most likely.
What someone needs to design is an economic system that depends on hedonism, ignorance, and apathy. I'd do very well in that system, I think.