Millennials’ faith in free enterprise is in bad shape these days. In a political moment where avowed socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez receive overwhelming praise from millennials, it raises the important question of why a 2016 Gallup poll found that 55 percent of 18-29 year olds have a positive view of socialism.
It sounds like a strange reality to consider. The free enterprise system is the great generator of wealth and prosperity that the American spirit was built upon, while socialism is the economic system of repressive and destitute countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and the former Soviet Union. How can a system that balks at the notion of private property and individual freedom receive so much support from a generation that overwhelmingly supports free trade and is so skeptical of the federal government?
The short answer is this: Defenders of free enterprise have done a terrible job of making the argument for why it is so deserving of praise. Even in the above paragraph, defenses of free enterprise are often couched in language that, though truthful, lauds “wealth and prosperity” over “repression and destitution.”
A March 2018 Pew poll found that 56 percent of millennials believe government should “do more to help the needy” and 66 percent of millennials would say that the American economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests” over everyday Americans. If defenders of free enterprise can only muster material answers to a generation that is righteously and virtuously concerned with big questions like fairness and equality, it should come as no surprise that they draw the impression that believing in free enterprise means caring more about profit than people.
Thinking about this divide as a millennial myself, I can be the first to tell you that I think New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks is right to claim that “market fundamentalism is an inhumane philosophy that makes economic growth society’s prime value and leaves people atomized and unattached.” And this is why, as someone who also fiercely believes in the superiority of the free enterprise system, its defenders should be making arguments that engage with morality and downplay materialism.
The best part? This is not a hard case to make. The moral underpinnings of free enterprise naturally reject the excesses its critics accuse it of enabling. The Founders knew this better than anyone, and they made their arguments accordingly. That is why George Washington would speak of hoping for America to be blessed with “good government, peace, and concord, to promote the knowledge and practice of the true religion and virtue” and why John Adams advised that gratitude and honesty “must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”
The reason free enterprise is so celebrated is not because of greed or materialism on the part of its admirers, but because it both rewards and depends upon the virtues our Founders stressed so highly. When individuals are free to earn their success and care for those around them, they are able to live these virtues and help to improve the quality of life not just for themselves, but for those around them.
It is also important to remind skeptical millennials that far from picking winners and losers at will, the free enterprise system is structured around fairness. The effort needs to be on how we define what is meant by fairness. The concept of fairness, as American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks emphasizes, “is one in which hard work, creativity, and honest competition result in financial reward” as opposed to either “redistribut[ing] resources through government power just to get more equality” or “rewarding the government’s cronies in favored industries — from green energy, to banks, to labor unions.” The beauty of the free enterprise system is that it recognizes the inherent dignity of all people and empowers them to be the best version of themselves. Nothing could be more fair.
It is true that free enterprise is not perfect, but no system is without flaws. The greatest argument for defenders of this system to make is one that is rooted in the fundamental reliance on equality and fairness that free enterprise demands of those who operate in it. It is just as important to remember that the moral argument for free enterprise not just for the purpose of convincing doubting millennials.
By focusing on individuals and morality over profit margins and economic jargon, pro-free enterprise arguments stand a much better chance at convincing skeptics of all ages that the free enterprise system is the only game in town that lifts up the poor and looks suspiciously at greed. If you want to fight for dignity, fight for free enterprise.