“Free-market capitalism is a network of free and voluntary exchanges in which producers work, produce, and exchange their products for the products of others through prices voluntarily arrived at. State capitalism consists of one or more groups making use of the coercive apparatus of the government… for themselves by expropriating the production of others by force and violence.
— Murray N. Rothbard, The Logic of Action (1997)
As common as it is to speak of “robber barons,” most who use that term are confused about the role of capitalism in the American economy and fail to make an important distinction — the distinction between what might be called a market entrepreneur and a political entrepreneur. A pure market entrepreneur, or capitalist, succeeds financially by selling a newer, better, or less expensive product on the free market without any government subsidies, direct or indirect. The key to his success as a capitalist is his ability to please the consumer, for in a capitalist society the consumer ultimately calls the economic shots. By contrast, a political entrepreneur succeeds primarily by influencing government to subsidize his business or industry, or to enact legislation or regulation that harms his competitors.
In the mousetrap industry, for instance, you can be a market entrepreneur by making better mousetraps and thereby convincing consumers to buy more of your mousetraps and less of your competitors’, or you can lobby Congress to prohibit the importation of all foreign-made mousetraps. In the former situation the consumer voluntarily hands over his money for the superior mousetrap; in the latter case the consumer, not given anything (better) in return, pays more for existing mousetraps just because the import quota has reduced supply and therefore driven up prices.
The American economy has always included a mix of market and political entrepreneurs — self-made men and women as well as political connivers and manipulators. And sometimes, people who have achieved success as market entrepreneurs in one period of their lives later become political entrepreneurs. But the distinction between the two is critical to make, for market entrepreneurship is a hallmark of genuine capitalism, whereas political entrepreneurship is not — it is neomercantilism.”