A free market with the scale of imbalanced wealth we have now could not possibly lead to widespread "rags to riches" in a deregulated economy.
It's a very moderate claim, and a claim that I think represents a very broad (probably majority) view right now in America. Before I begin my response, I want to disclose my biases: my dad is a middle-middle class college professor who belongs to a country club, but has never been to Europe. My mom has always worked part time. I grew up in a mostly white suburb. I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I was 19.
I read Ayn Rand when I was 19, and was momentarily convinced. Professors (rightfully) made fun of me, so I stopped talking about Rand. Early in graduate school, egged on by an antagonistic rhetorician who would become a lawyer, I dug deeper and in the opposite direction. I read Marx's Communist Manifesto, Volume 1 of Capital, a bunch of Lenin, some other Russian anarchists, read about Fourier, read Galbraith and a little John Maynard Keynes. I also read the run-of-the-mill "contemporary" intellectual critiques of capitalism: Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, Foucault's The Order of Things, Baudrillard, a little Zizek, etc. But unlike every-single-body-else, I also took the time to read the defenses of capitalism: Adam Smith, Carl Menger, F.A. Hayek, and capitalism's clearest exponent, Ludwig Von Mises. I glanced at Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky, as well as Fukuyama.
The point I want to make is this: it is possible that, despite all of this reading, I have been so thoroughly propagandized from the time I was young that I cannot see how blind I am to economic realities. On the other hand, very few of my friends and colleagues in the liberal arts will admit that they might be the victims of propaganda and blindness, despite the fact that I am the only person I know who has read both Foucault and Mises. It's possible that the thesis that follows is bourgeois ideology in disguise as expertise. On the other hand, it seems to me that reading exclusively Adorno & Horkheimer, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Chomsky might produce an imbalanced/propagandized subject. Possible?
My argument is twofold: first, a historical defense; second, a theoretical defense.
Historical: Those participating in this dialogue must understand that prosperity is relative. Evaluating current economic conditions solely against those conditions witnessed in one's lifetime is a mistake. If it is true that "things are worse" in 2009 than you remember them being in 1999, that is no ground to stand on: we must consider 1899 and 1599 and 1299, and we must seek to understand the causes of the living conditions in each of those time periods.
Fortunately, my adversaries' prophets have done much convincing on this point: Foucault made it crystal clear that the narrative of progress is a construct, and that human history is not necessarily a direct line of ascendency from the stone age of scarcity to the postmodern golden age of abundance. That is, progress isn't "natural."
Those who critique capitalism and the conditions it produces must therefore compare the current conditions to previously existing conditions. The economic system that dominated the Western world before capitalism was Feudalism (mixed with a kind of guild-syndicalism, but that's too technical). What were living conditions like during the Feudal era? First, heirarchy reigned: classes were as rigid as castes, and property (and rights) trickled down from a supposedly divinely-appointed monarch. But worse: food was scarce. Water supplies were unreliable. Disease was rampant. Life expectancy for serfs during the late medieval period did not even approach 40. Let me make one final point clear: the poorest of the poor starved to death.
Europe in 1,000 A.D. was an incredibly difficult place to live. The explicit historical question, then, is what caused the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution? What caused the vast rise in prosperty that led to the arrival, finally, of the notion of the "middle class" in Europe by 1800? We have all heard the horror stories of the industrial age: 15-hour work days, child labor, iron-lung, etc. But what was the result for the poorest of the poor? They lived. In squalor, yes. But they lived, and that was a new phenomenon in history. Women's rights, slow to come, would have been (were) absolutely unimaginable in a Feudal system. The difficult factory work that gobbled up many a young-woman's teen years in the middle of the nineteenth century was horrendously difficult: but it was preferable to prostitution, which was the only choice a woman had in a Feudal system.
I will assume I need to make no remarks about Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.
But historical arguments are dull -- there is too much data to wade through, and there is no reason for you to be convinced by that narrative. I do not doubt that you could weave your own tale in defense of regulation. [However, I would be very interested to hear what governmental mechanisms progressives believe are responsible for the widespread rise in Western living conditions between, say 1400 and 1900, if not the expanding free-market]
As for the theoretical defense of capitalism. No, you know -- I don't have the time for that. I'll just mention that the book that I have found most convincing on this point is available for free online (because its author did not believe "intellectual property" should be copywrite-able). Read Ludwig Von Mises' Human Action when you have the curiosity. It's not even 900 pages long. If that seems an unreasonable or too-daunting undertaking, imagine how I felt at 23 wading through every page of Marx's Capital, vol. 1. Okay, okay... but at least read the ten-page introduction to Human Action.
But seriously, if you don't have the time, here's Mises' "for dummies" version: a 51-page critique of socialism that has never, to my knowledge, been challenged on theoretical grounds.
At one point in Human Action, Mises addresses the question of whether capitalism can work when it "begins" under a circumstance of inequality of wealth. Mises answers that inequality of wealth is a reflection of freedom. The point for me is that there was a VAST inequality of wealth at the outset of the American free market, which led, nevertheless, to widespread relative prosperity even among America's poorest: consider what amenities were available to America's poor in 1770 vs. what America's poor had in 1900 vs. what America's poor had in 1990. The progress may be unsatisfactory, but it seems impossible to deny that America's poor have benefitted from the system.