The Nation's Pulse

Students’ Confusion About Capitalism

For all we know, they think capitalism is a synonym for communism.

By 5.12.09

Send to Kindle

"Only 53 percent of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism," according to an April survey by Rasmussen.

Age made a large difference in how Americans viewed capitalism and socialism, according to the survey, with capitalism getting the worst grades among adults under 30. Only 37 percent of the under-30s favored capitalism, 33 percent preferred socialism, and 30 percent were undecided. It sounds like they could vote in a Castro if he had a good smile.

The preference for socialism, in contrast, dropped to 26 percent among the 30-somethings in the Rasmussen survey, and dropped to just 13 percent among adults over 40.

By party, Republicans by an 11-to-1 margin said that capitalism was superior to socialism, while Democrats were more pro-socialist and more evenly divided, with only 39 percent preferring capitalism, 30 percent favoring socialism, and 31 percent undecided.

Rasmussen didn't define socialism or capitalism for the respondents during the survey, so we really don't know how many of the aforementioned responses were based on even the slightest knowledge about the two economic systems.

In January, for instance, I surveyed 50 recent high school graduates, now all in college or on their way. To the question, "Define capitalism in 10 to 20 words," here are some of the written responses, not atypical:

"Capitalism is making the most money for the government and having the government control the people." 

"Capitalism is the money that is in the government. It is when the government controls all the money."

"Capitalism is based on a money-hungry nation, seeking to establish power through money."

"Capitalism is when an economy is based on the needs of the people."

"Capitalism is when the government takes a bigger role in the economy and controls more things."

"Capitalism is when the government is the only one deciding laws and regulations."

"I have no clue what capitalism is because I've never paid any attention to politics or the world around me until this year."

"Capitalism is everything that makes our government run properly."

"Capitalism is how the government is run. It is the government system."

"Capitalism is when the government has complete control over the decisions that the country makes."

Those responses, coming primarily from students in the top half of their class in allegedly high-quality school systems, don't provide much encouragement about what's going on in high school classes in history, political science, government or business (or much confidence in the value of the Rasmussen survey).

Not all the responses were that bad. One student, for example, wrote: "Capitalism promotes individualism. It is a free market system that allows individuals to use their entrepreneurial skills to advance their lives." Another wrote, "Capitalism is an economic system in which wealth and the means of producing wealth are privately owned and controlled, rather than publicly controlled or state-owned." Wrote a third student, "Capitalism is an economic system based on markets (both regarding markets for goods and services and markets for labor) and based on the private ownership and private control of capital." And more succinctly from another student, "Capitalism rewards hard work and risk-taking -- the opposite of socialism and communism."

The bad news is that there's nothing to keep this latter group of better-informed students from being out-voted by the former and larger group of less-knowledgeable students.

The good news is that it's not very hard to get these students on the right track once they're exposed to even a modicum of information regarding the fundamental differences between capitalism, socialism and communism.

On the final exam in an economics course that I just completed teaching, one question asked students to evaluate capitalism. Wrote one student, not that many semesters out of high school, in a not atypical response:

Capitalism represents a profound change in human thinking that occurred over the past 400 years, a drop in the bucket in time. And yet, these recent centuries have seen remarkable and historic advances, improvements in the quality of life for the masses that were unthinkable in the Dark Ages, due overwhelmingly to free market enterprise. Capitalism carries a host of inherent positives -- the self-regulating effects of competition, workers with specialized skills who can command a livable wage, increasing technological advances, voluntary exchange between workers, consumers and businesses, the property rights of citizens, the encouragement of risk-taking and business creation. Most importantly, capitalism marks a "rags to riches" story never before seen in history, wherein hard work and a cutting edge mind can lead the poorest individual from poverty to wealth.

The bottom line? It looks like we need a bigger supply of pro-capitalist teachers.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.