Young Americans love capitalism. They just don’t realize it.
The tides are turning against capitalism -- well, kind of. According to a 2019 Gallup study, only 51 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers have a positive view toward capitalism. Meanwhile, socialism has made startling gains, with 49 percent of these demographics viewing it positively compared to 39 percent of Gen Xers and 32 percent of Baby Boomers. Yet despite their shift toward abandoning the “capitalist” label, 83% of Millennials and GenZers still support free enterprise. So what gives?
For many young people, “capitalism” has become a moniker for any undesirable outcome that arises from the profit motive. The profit motive is certainly an important element of capitalism, and none of its advocates are denying that. But it’s not the only one. When I think of capitalism, I also think of classically liberal philosopher John Locke’s defense of private property, a system that creates a strong legal and philosophical foundation for personal autonomy through the lens of self-ownership. And I think of a framework where the state has a duty to protect our property equally instead of picking arbitrary favorites. Highlighting the importance of full-fledged, equitably enforced property rights in a true free-market economy, while working to hold our political leaders accountable when they forget that key principle, is our best hope for preserving capitalism’s reputation.
One of the most common and unfair mischaracterizations of capitalism is the claim that it was intrinsically linked with the transatlantic slave trade. This hot take isn’t just found on college students’ Instagram stories -- even the New York Times elevated it when it published sociologist Matthew Desmond’s anti-capitalist smear as part of the 1619 Project. The problem? It’s completely false. As Locke wrote, “every man has a property in his own person.” A system where people buy and sell human beings with no regard for their will is anti-capitalist to the extreme, as it denies its victims the right to autonomous control over their most important piece of private property: themselves. Slavery is an example of collective racism prevailing over private ownership. Pro-capitalists should fight like hell against any system with those twisted priorities.
When it comes to contemporary economic issues, would-be socialists constantly misinterpret the government’s corporate welfare as a symptom of capitalism. In reality, these handouts are a stark departure from a capitalist system. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, “conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year.” Americans have less of an opportunity to predominantly or exclusively support renewable energy sources when our hard-earned tax dollars go toward propping up fossil fuels. This sort of anti-capitalist intervention makes all of us less free.
Likewise, city governments fell over themselves to throw direct incentives like cash grants at Amazon when the company was deciding where it would put its new headquarters. Socialists blame corporations like Amazon for making the rational choice to accept whatever advantages they can get. Capitalists, on the other hand, hold our governments accountable for offering businesses unfair, uneven advantages at taxpayer expense. We realize a simple truth: that all of us should get to use our own money to uplift the businesses that offer us the best value, instead of big government taking away that individual autonomy and making those decisions for us.
This is the vision of economic liberty that will allow capitalism to prevail in our uncertain future. All of us can do our part to spread a unified message: that capitalism isn’t just the profit motive, but a cohesive, time-tested system that preserves our most fundamental rights. Advocates of capitalism have done a great job in recent years of pushing back against the myth that the Nordic model of a capitalist economy with a welfare state is an example of socialism’s success. We have the power to resist other myths, too. When politicians who claim to love free-market capitalism restrict individual autonomy or dole out billions of dollars in subsidies, it’s our job as constituents and taxpayers to demand they do better.
Right now, young people across America love free enterprise. They just haven’t gotten on board with capitalism. By holding our “capitalist” representatives in the government to a higher standard and spreading our message with groundbreaking honesty, we can show our generation that free enterprise and capitalism are one and the same.
By Rachel Altman
Rachel Altman is a D.C. native in her senior year at Tulane University, where she studies political economy and marketing. Her writings appeared in the Washington Examiner, The Independent and USA Today. Rachel has formerly interned with the Cato Institute and in the U.S. Senate.Rachel Altman is a Local Coordinator at Students For Liberty.