Economists, political economists, sociologists, and historians 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, welfare capitalism and state 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, the role of intervention and regulation and the scope of state ownership vary across different The extent to which different markets are free, as well as the rules defining private property, are matters of politics and policy. Most existing capitalist economies are mixed economies, which combine elements of free markets with state intervention and in some cases economic planning.
Market economies have existed under many forms of government, in many different times, places and cultures. Modern capitalist societies – marked by a universalization of money-based social relations, a consistently large and system-wide class of workers who must work for wages, and a capitalist class which owns the means of production – 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. Over time, capitalist countries have experienced consistent economic growth and an increase in the standard of living.
Critics of capitalism argue that it establishes power in the hands of a minority capitalist class that exists through the exploitation of the majority working class; prioritizes profit over social good, natural resources and the environment; and is an engine of inequality and economic instabilities. Supporters argue that it provides better products through competition, creates strong economic growth, yields productivity and prosperity that greatly benefits society, as well as being the most efficient system known for allocation of resources.
The term "capitalist", meaning an owner of capital, appears earlier than the term "capitalism" and it dates back to the mid-17th century. "Capitalism" is derived from capital, which evolved from capitale, a late Latin word based on caput, meaning "head" – also the origin of chattel and cattle in the sense of movable property (only much later to refer only to livestock). Capitale emerged in the 12th to 13th centuries in the sense of referring to funds, stock of merchandise, sum of money or money carrying interest. By 1283, it was used in the sense of the capital assets of a trading firm and it was frequently interchanged with a number of other words – wealth, money, funds, goods, assets, property and so on.
The Hollandische Mercurius uses capitalists in 1633 and 1654 to refer to owners of capital. In French, Étienne Clavier referred to capitalistes in 1788, six years before its first recorded English usage by Arthur Young in his work Travels in France (1792). In his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), David Ricardo referred to "the capitalist" many times. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet, used "capitalist" in his work Table Talk (1823). Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used the term "capitalist" in his first work, What is Property? (1840), to refer to the owners of capital. Benjamin Disraeli used the term "capitalist" in his 1845 work Sybil.