"In an apparent rejection of the basic principles of the US economy," writes Max Ehrenfreund at the Washington Post, "a new poll shows that most young people do not support capitalism."
Notice the intimation that capitalism is the system we already have — not, as pro-capitalist philosopher Ayn Rand called it, the "unknown ideal." But Ehrenfreund takes a half step back from the implication: "Capitalism can mean different things to different people." Nevertheless, he concludes, "the newest generation of voters is frustrated with the status quo, broadly speaking."
So we're not entirely sure what "capitalism" means to those surveyed, but we think it has something to do with the system we currently live in. Young dissatisfaction with the status quo is probably a good thing, but the labels used in simplistic survey questions — and in headlines — just add ever more confusion to discussions of economic freedom.
As I wrote about my anti-capitalistic youth in "Why Students Give Capitalism an F,"
"Capitalism" was just the word we all used for whatever we didn't like about the status quo, especially whatever struck us as promoting inequality. I had friends propose to me that we should consider the C-word a catchall for racism, patriarchy, and crony corporatism. If that's what capitalism means, how could anyone be for it?
But even advocates of economic freedom are divided on the word capitalism. Some see it as the correct name for the system we support, including individual liberty, private property, and peaceful exchange. Of particular significance to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, the term "refers to the most characteristic feature of the system, its main eminence, viz., the role the notion of capital plays in its conduct" (Human Action, chapter 13).
In other words, the profound abundance that the market has produced for all of us is the result of private investment and economic calculation.
Others point out that the term was coined by the enemies of the free market, and that it has too long a history as the designation for cozy business-government partnerships and legal privilege for the rich and powerful. (See FEE contributor Steven Horwitz's "Is the Name 'Capitalism' Worth Keeping?")
Both sides seem to agree, however, that the word has too many divergent connotations to be used usefully without explanation. Unfortunately, that means we have to spend a lot of time explaining what we don't support.
Zach Lustbader, a Harvard senior involved in conducting the recent poll, told the Post, "You don’t hear people on the right defending their economic policies using that word anymore.” When they do use the word, it is to stand against "crony capitalism," according to the 22-year-old student.
I wish, in his discussion of the problems with the word capitalism, Lustbader hadn't fallen back on the even more problematic classification of people on the right, but if we put aside that quibble, I can say that his experience matches my own. When I encounter the words capitalist or capitalism used without qualification, it is most often by those who oppose the free market — and assume an audience that shares that bias.
Other polls of 18-to-29-year-olds show not just antipathy to the word capitalism but also generally positive feelings about the word socialism. But the results tell us more about semantic reflexes than they do about specific positions on economic policy.
In the Harvard poll, only 27 percent said the government should play a substantial role in regulating the economy. Doesn't that imply that 73 percent support relative economic freedom, no matter what terminology the respondents embrace? Even if millennials don't reject socialism as a dirty word, just 30 percent believe in a large government role in reducing income inequality. Even Keynesianism, stripped of its label, fails to garner support: a mere 26 percent think government spending can effectively increase economic growth.
"It is an open question," Ehrenfreund writes, "whether young people's attitudes on socialism and capitalism show that they are rejecting free markets as a matter of principle or whether those views are simply an expression of broader frustrations with an economy in which household incomes have been declining for 15 years."
So we're back to the idea that capitalism stands for whatever people perceive to be wrong with the economic status quo. That leaves us with the considerable task of explaining how government interventions, not free markets, got us into the current mess, and how only greater economic freedom can get us out.
But we can take heart from poll results that reveal skepticism toward greater government involvement in the economy: between two thirds and three fourths are dubious of the government's ability to fix anything. That's a start.