Almost every day, there is a news story or opinion piece blaming a societal problem on capitalism. A recent one blames capitalism for destroying art, citing Warner Brothers canceling the release of Batgirl. While sometimes it seems that people are just looking for some kind of scapegoat, there continues to be deep skepticism about capitalism, especially among young Americans. When skeptics and advocates talk about capitalism, are we really speaking the same language when we use the word? Though some critics have a deep understanding of different economic systems, new evidence shows how many are confusing free markets with cronyism. This confusion hinders coherent policy discussions, as well as the future of economic freedom and flourishing.
In what has been referred to as “the hockey stick of human prosperity,” there have been huge advances in human prosperity in the last 200 to 300 years after centuries where the world was extremely poor. To better understand why young adults are so skeptical of capitalism — despite the important role that free markets have played in enabling this prosperity — we conducted a survey of 2,000 students at 130 four-year universities and colleges across the U.S., examining how their conceptions of capitalism relate to their attitudes about it.