The young and capitalism as an attitude

The young don't seem to think highly of capitalism. What do they know, nonetheless, about the concept they reject so much?

Do the young know what they oppose?
(Image: PanAm Post)

Capitalism may be defined, as Karl Marx did, by its labor system, where the workers do not own their own means of production. It may also be defined by the metaphorical ‘market’ where the buying and selling takes place, or by private ownership of the means of production rather than government ownership. But my interest here is to describe capitalism as an attitude. That is, as a mental state connecting a person to a proposition.

When a socialist sees a luxurious expensive home, the reaction may be one of disgust: “no one should be allowed to live like that”; or perhaps one of envy :“if I cannot live like that, no one should live like that.” In contrast, someone with a capitalist attitude might instead think: “everyone should have the opportunity to work in order to be able to buy a house like that.”

Capitalism also expresses a willingness to take entrepreneurial risks. A centerpiece of capitalism is the modern corporation which facilitates, through the sale of stock to the public, the concentration of large sums of capital in support of an enterprising idea. Without this ability to concentrate capital, national economies are limited to small scale businesses, or to rely on government for business operations requiring large sums of capital.

Critics of business corporations point to the diffusion of responsibility among professional managers, directors, and shareholders, as a fatal flaw of corporations. Yet, the alternatives are to be a primitive economy, or to let government undertake all business activities requiring large sums of capital. This entails even greater diffusion of responsibilities and inefficiency. Why then, do some, and particularly the young, seem to hate capitalism so much?

Opinion polls suggest that young people do not think highly of capitalism. A 2016 Harvard University poll of 18 to 29 year-olds found that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. Another poll, by YouGov, found that 44 percent of American millennials claimed they would prefer to live in a socialist country, compared to 42 percent who would prefer to live in a capitalist country. These attitudes beg the question: if young people dislike government so much, why would they want more of it in the form of greater government control of our economic lives?

One easy conclusion would be to echo the judgement attributed to Winston Churchill that “if a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain”.

But there is more to this attitude about capitalism, and the results of these surveys are difficult to interpret because capitalism can mean different things to different people. Moreover, this negative attitude is not unique to today’s youth. Young people, across generations, have typically shown less support for their official political and economic systems than their elders. It is also clear that they tend to change those views as they age.

Most of the youthful objections seem directed at crony capitalism where businesses thrive, not as a result of risk-taking, but through a nexus between the business class and the political class; or to situations where state power is used to suppress genuine competition. We should all share in that disgust.

Interestingly, in follow up surveys young participants strongly favor ideas such as employee-owned companies, and profit-sharing plans rather than advocating for state ownership of the enterprises. These are capitalist ideas used by modern companies to improve profitability.

Today’s youth rejects capitalism without a clear idea of what should replace it. When the ideas of young protesters are intellectually unpacked, they actually want more capitalism not less. The concerns of protesting millennials are mostly related to fairness, and not to an ideological belief in state ownership of the means of production.

Young people are adamant about having control over their activities. They do not favor a heavy government presence in their personal lives. These are capitalist attitudes. These young protesters are capitalists, they just do not know it yet.

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