Resources or means of production remain either in private ownership with full individual freedom to use them for the profit motive or they can be in collective ownership (government control) and can be used for the collective welfare of the society as a whole.

Based on the criterion of degree of individual freedom and profit motive, economies are labelled as:

  1. Capitalist or free enterprise economy
  2. Socialist or centrally planned economy
  3. Mixed economy

A. Capitalist Economy

The capitalist or free enterprise economy is the oldest form of economy. Earlier economists supported the policy of "laissez fair" meaning leave free. They advocated minimum government intervention in the economic activities. The following are the main features of a capitalist economy:

1. Private property

In a capitalism system all the individuals have the right to own property. An individual can acquire property and use it for the benefit of his own family. There is no restriction on the ownership of land, machines, mines, factories and to earn profit and accumulate wealth. After the death of a person the property or wealth is transferred to the legal heirs. Thus, the institution of private property is sustained over time by the right of inheritance.

2. Freedom of enterprise

In a capitalist economy the government does not coordinate production decisions of the citizens. Individuals are free to choose any occupation. Freedom of enterprise implies that business firms are free to acquire resources and use them in the production of any good or service. The firms are also free to sell their product in the markets of their choice.

A worker is free to choose his or her employer. In small business units owner himself takes the risk of production and earns profit or loss for himself. But in modern corporations the shareholders take risks whereas paid directors manage business. Thus the individual supervision of one’s own capital is now no longer required to earn profit. Government or any other agency does not impose restrictions/obstacles in the way of workers to enter or leave a particular industry. A worker chooses that occupation where his income is maximum.

3. Consumer’s Sovereignty

In a capitalist economy consumers are like a king. They have the full freedom to spend their income on goods and services that give them maximum satisfaction. In capitalist system production is guided by consumer’s choices. This freedom of consumers is called consumer’s sovereignty.

4. Profit Motive

Self-interest is the guiding principle in capitalism. Entrepreneurs know that they will own the profit or loss after the payment to all other factors of production. Therefore they are always motivated to maximise their residual profit by minimising cost and maximising revenue. This makes the capitalist economy an efficient and self-regulated economy.

5. Competition

There are no restrictions on the entry and exit of firms in a capitalism system. The large number of producers are available to supply a particular good or service and therefore no firm can earn more than normal profit. Competition is the fundamental feature of capitalist economy and essential to safeguard against consumer’s exploitation. Although due to large-size and product distinction monopolistic tendencies have grown these days still the competition can be seen among a large number of firms.

6. Importance of markets and prices

The important features of capitalism like private property, freedom of choice, profit motive and competition make a room for free and efficient functioning of price mechanism. Capitalism is essentially a market economy where every commodity has a price. The forces of demand and supply in an industry determine this price. Firms which are able to adjust at a given price earn normal profit and those who fail to do so often quit the industry. A producer will produce those goods, which give him more profit.

7. Absence of government interference

In a free enterprise or capitalist economy the price system plays an important role of coordinating agent. Government intervention and support is not required. The role of government is to help in free and efficient functioning of the markets.

Capitalism in Today’s World

Pure capitalism is not seen in the world. The economies of USA, UK, France, Netherland, Spain, Portugal, Australia are known as capitalistic countries with active role of their respective government in economic development.

B. Socialist Economy

In the socialist or centrally planned economies all the productive resources are owned and controlled by the government in the overall interest of the society. A central planning authority takes the decisions. The socialist economy has the following main features:

1. Collective Ownership of means of Production

In a Socialist economy means of production are owned by the government on behalf of the people. The institution of private property is abolished and no individual is allowed to own any production unit and accumulate wealth and transfer it to their heirs. However, people may own some durable consumer goods for their personal use.

2. Social Welfare Objective

The decisions are taken by the government at macro level with the objective of maximisation of social welfare in mind rather than maximisation of individual profit. The forces of demand and supply do not play any important role. Careful decisions are taken with the welfare objectives in mind.

3. Central Planning

Economic planning is an essential feature of a socialist economy. The Central Planning Authority keeping the national priorities and availability of resources in mind allocates resources. Government takes all economic decisions regarding production, consumption and investment keeping in mind the present and future needs. The planning authorities fix targets for various sectors and ensure efficient utilisation of resources.

4. Reduction in Inequalities

The institutions of private property and inheritance are at the root of inequalities of income and wealth in a capitalist economy. By abolishing these twin institutions a socialist economic system is able to reduce the inequalities of incomes. It is important to note that perfect equality in income and wealth is neither desirable nor practicable.

5. No class conflict

In capitalist economy the interests of the workers and management are different. Both of them want to maximise their own individual profit or earnings. This results in class conflict in capitalist economy. In socialism there is no competition among classes. Every person is a worker so there is no class conflict. All are co-workers.

Socialism in Today’s World

Countries such as Russia, China and many eastern European countries are said to be socialist countries. But they are changing now and encouraging liberalisation in their countries for their economic development.

C. Mixed Economy

A mixed economy combines the best features of capitalism and socialism. Thus mixed economy has some elements of both free enterprise or capitalist economy as well as a government controlled socialist economy. The public and private sectors co-exist in mixed economies. The main characteristics of a mixed economy are as follows:

1. Co-existence of public and private sectors

The private sector consists of production units that are owned privately and work on the basis of profit motive. The public sector consists of production units owned by the government and works on the basis of social welfare. The areas of economic activities of each sector are generally demarcated. Government uses its various policies e.g. licensing policy, taxation policy, price policy, monetary policy and fiscal policy to control and regulate the private sector.

2. Individual Freedom

Individuals take up economic activities to maximise their personal income. They are free to choose any occupation and consume as per their choice. But producers are not given the freedom to exploit consumers and labourers. Government puts some restrictions keeping in mind the welfare of the people. For instance, government may put restrictions on the production and consumption of harmful goods. But within rules, regulations and restrictions imposed by the government, for the welfare of the society the private sector enjoys complete freedom.

3. Economic Planning

The government prepares long-term plans and decides the roles to be played by the private and public sectors in the development of the economy. The public sector is under direct control of the government as such production targets and plans are formulated for them directly. The private sector is provided encouragement, incentives, support and subsidies to work as per national priorities.

4. Price Mechanism

Prices play a significant role in the allocation of resources. For some sectors the policy of administered prices is adopted. Government also provides price subsidies to help the target group. The aim of the government is to maximise the welfare of the masses. For those who can not afford to purchase the goods at market prices, government makes the goods available either free of cost or at below market (subsidised) prices.

Thus, in a mixed economy people at large enjoy individual freedom and government support to protect the interests of weaker sections of the society. Indian economy is considered a mixed economy as it has well defined areas for functioning of public and private sectors and economic planning. Even countries such as USA, UK which were known as capitalistic countries are also called mixed economies now because of active role of their government in economic development.