Young Americans are increasingly cold toward capitalism. According to the YouGov/Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism, 44% of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country, while another 14% are partial to communism or fascism. Just 42% would opt for a capitalist country like the one we all live in.
Does this mean that we millennials are budding Trotskyites, eager to launch the worker’s revolution?
Probably not. For one, many millennials have only a fuzzy concept of what these different economic systems entail. Barely a third correctly identified socialism as a system “characterized by social ownership and state control of the means of production.” Nearly half could not identify capitalism as an “economic system based on free markets and the rule of law with legal protections for private ownership.” These labels simply do not mean as much to a generation with no memory of the Cold War, and our schools have largely failed to teach them.
Millennials’ apparent fondness for socialism is also hard to square with our enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. A 2016 survey found that 72% of millennials say “startups and entrepreneurship are essential for new innovation and jobs” and 62% “have considered starting their own business.” A separate survey found that entrepreneurs under age 35 are launching more companies with bigger staffs and higher profit targets than those of the boomer generation.
In deed, if not in word, millennials are avid capitalists. Why, then, do so many profess a preference for socialism and communism?
Here’s a clue: According to the YouGov/Victims of Communism report, 53% of millennials feel that America’s economic system works against them, the highest percentage of any age group. We aren’t so much infatuated with socialism as we are frustrated with an economy we feel is rigged against us.
And the unfortunate truth is that America’s economy is rigged against young people.
Irrational occupational licensing laws often prevent us from pursuing our chosen professions. Government subsidies reward large, established interests at the expense of startups and small businesses. A convoluted tax code punishes entrepreneurs and creates headaches for anyone trying to earn extra cash through Uber or Airbnb.
The answer to these problems isn’t socialism. The tighter the government’s grip over the economy, the greater the capacity for special interests to rig the system in their favor. The 44% of millennials who long to reside in a socialist country ought to pick up a newspaper (or more likely, their capitalism-created smartphone) and read the latest headlines out of Venezuela, Cuba or North Korea. They aren’t workers’ paradises.
The real solution is to unleash free markets, not destroy them.
Millennials had the misfortune to come of age during the Great Recession, which has diminished our perception of capitalism. Nevertheless, we have witnessed in our lifetimes the transformative effects of free market innovation. We traded in our flip phones for iPhones and uploaded entire libraries to our Kindles. We joined globe-spanning social networks and jump-started the sharing economy.
All these advances were made possible by free markets. Many innovations — including Facebook, Airbnb and Lyft — were born of millennial minds, and we are just getting started. But any challenge to the status quo is likely to be resisted by vested interests and government regulators, as we have already seen with attempts to limit the expansion of ridesharing and homesharing in cities across the country.
As more young people enter the workforce, launch startups and expand their businesses, they will encounter ever more government roadblocks. Rather than flirt with socialism, millennials should be the loudest voices in favor of reforming the tax code, easing occupational licensing laws and eliminating the government-granted privileges that stand in our way.
Millennials may have doubts about free markets, but our future success depends on them.
Carrie Sheffield is the executive director of Generation Opportunity.