A Harvard survey found that only 42% of 18 to 29 year olds support capitalism. The good news of sorts is that only 33% support socialism. Yet 44% support its close cousin progressivism, and 48% support “social justice activism.” These results show a deep confusion that will require a strong dose of capitalist morality to cure.
And Pew surveys have found that only 46% of young people have a positive “reaction to” capitalism while 49% react positively to socialism. Granted, these are different questions from the ones in the Harvard report. But when the word “free market” is used instead of “capitalism,” results are more favorable. Even so, concerning that Harvard report, the Washington Post screamed a sensationalist headline, “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows.”
While these findings indeed are wake-up calls for friends of freedom, they need to be understood in full context. For example, while the Harvard survey found that 51% of young people do not support capitalism, it also found that 59% don’t support socialism. Further, 49% don’t support progressivism and 42% don’t support “social justice activism.” These and other surveys do find that America is an extremely polarized society.
But even more than being polarized, America is an extremely confused society. Today we live in a crony system. Businesses, unions, and ideological interest groups use political pull and influence to secure taxpayer handouts or regulations that favor them by limiting the liberty of others. Capitalism, by contrast, is the system in which who gets what is determined by individuals and enterprises producing goods and services to trade with voluntary customers.
But statist politicians, led by Bernie Sanders, portray the crony system as “capitalism” and argue that it should be replaced by a system in which only certain elites—them—can run the economy through government force. Young people, disgusted with the crony system, accept this counterfeit definition of capitalism especially, responding to the call to smash the crony system. But they are pretty fuzzy about what exactly socialism is.
Ignorance is certainly an important reason for opposition to capitalism, and common misunderstandings extend beyond the definition of the system. Fuzzy opponents of capitalism claim that it harms the poor and holds them down. But economic liberty, the essence of capitalism, has produced the prosperity in the industrialized world with most individuals enjoying living standards undreamt of in past millennia. And both the Index of Economic Freedom and the Economic Freedom of the World annual reports clearly demonstrate the strong correlation between economic freedom and prosperity.
But the real battle between socialism and capitalism is a moral one. Individuals have a right to their own lives and happiness. They must use their rational judgment to determine how best to survive and to realize their dreams. Thus, Ayn Rand explained that “Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights in which all property is privately owned.”
A corollary is that it is a system in which “all human relations are voluntary.” By contrast, all other systems—socialist, welfare states—are based on the notion that individuals need permission from government officials to do as they will and that force is an acceptable means to deal with one another: that morality comes from the barrel of a gun.
And it is on these moral grounds that the battle for economic liberty must be fought. They must challenge socialists: “Do you grant that I have a right to my own life, yes or no?” “Are you arguing that you have a right to use force against me to make me live in a way consistent with your whims, yes or no?”
Many naïve millennials on the left despair of the fact that ours is such a conflict-ridden and polarized political polity and society. But all systems except for true free enterprise are, by their nature, based on conflict. Many naïve millennials on the left long for a positive path to a prosperous future. But only true free enterprise rewards individuals materially and spiritually for creative and productive virtues.
So if you despair of polls showing support for socialism on the rise on America, you must promote capitalism based first and foremost on moral grounds.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.