The summer of 2001 was slow in the news business. But that changed over the Fourth of July weekend, when a shark attacked a young boy in Florida. Suddenly, it seemed as if sharks were attacking Americans every day. The news cycle was consumed; experts weighed in on television; tourists canceled their beach vacations. It was dubbed the “ Summer of the Shark,” and wall-to-wall coverage continued for two months — until 9/11, when the shark news ended abruptly.
Here’s the thing: It was all hype. According to the International Shark Attack Files at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were fewer unprovoked shark attacks in the United States in 2001 (50) than the year before (52), as well as the most recent year on file, 2016 (53).
Forgive my cynicism, but whenever I hear about a scary new crisis, I think about the Summer of the Shark. And that’s happening right about now as I listen to the constant drumbeat of news that young Americans are turning to socialism, which has become the conventional wisdom, especially in conservative media. I say: maybe, and maybe not.
It’s true that young people are more sympathetic to socialism than their elders are. According to Gallup, in 2018, 51 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 had a positive view of socialism vs. 41 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 30 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 28 percent of people older than that. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It’s more or less like observing that Florida has more shark attacks than Maine.
The claim goes further, though: that young people are increasingly turning to socialism. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Karlyn Bowman has argued, there is little evidence of that. Few polls have asked about views on socialism over the years; those that do find no change. For example, the Gallup survey in 2010 found the percentage among 18- to 29-year-olds with a positive view of socialism was 51 percent, precisely the same then as now.
So, why all the alarms? Because it fits a handy narrative of American political dynamics currently offered up by the media — one that keeps people addicted to political entertainment. “Young Jacobins want the government to take over the means of production” is a lot more interesting to viewers of cable news than “Young people are more progressive than old people, but not more so than usual.” By appealing to fear, it also exempts defenders of capitalism from making the positive case for the system’s merits. Sharks everywhere!
But just because young people aren’t signing up in droves for socialism doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the future of the U.S. economic system. A 2015 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds believe the American Dream is “dead” for them. That is the real challenge — and a welcome one, because it provides an incentive to discuss the merits and problems of free enterprise as it now functions in the United States.
For those of us who are enthusiastic about market systems, the discussion starts by accurately depicting the voices of people who aren’t. Conservatives often “nutpick” liberal arguments, emphasizing voices that are extremely radical and exotic — those that defend the depraved Maduro regime in Venezuela, for example. That tactic doesn’t work with unaligned observers, who correctly sense that focusing on outliers is meant to discredit, not illuminate. Listen to mainstream voices on the left, and two themes emerge when it comes to economic policy: a concern about alleviating poverty and a desire to increase opportunity for people at the periphery of society.
These are excellent goals, in my view — moral objectives that attracted me philosophically to the free-enterprise system in the first place but that are too often forgotten even by capitalism’s proponents. As I show in a documentary film released this month, the percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty — living on a dollar a day or less, adjusted for inflation — has fallen by four-fifths since the 1970s, with at least 2 billion people having escaped the grip of extreme poverty. At the same time, the under-age-5 child mortality rate has fallen by 58 percent just since 1990, and adult global literacy has risen from 75 percent in 1990 to 86 percent in 2016.
What explains this amazing progress? Globalization, free trade, the proliferation of property rights and the rule of law, and the culture of democratic capitalism spreading around the world. As President Barack Obama, not known as a conservative dogmatist, put it in 2015, the “free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.”
Some will counter that the free market is not enough, that millions are still left out of capitalism’s bounty (including in the United States) and others are getting rich through exploitation. And they’re right: Too many have been excluded while others have taken unfair advantage. Free enterprise can be distorted by the powerful, whether through corporate cronyism or the complicated web of social advantages protected by the wealthy.
But that fact isn’t an argument to roll capitalism back; it is an argument for sharing its benefits more widely. Are the potential and merit of people at the margins being rewarded? (Answer: Not enough.) Are the wealthy truly being exposed to the creative destruction of markets? (Answer: Not enough.) More mobility is needed, upward from the bottom and, yes, downward from the top.
Further, defenders of free enterprise must acknowledge that markets are not at odds with a social safety net. The goal, in conservative economist Friedrich Hayek’s words, should be to ensure “some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody,” and insurance against “those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.”
The Summer of the Shark was fiction, and the Surge of the Socialist is overblown. However, concerns about the capitalist system are real. This is an opportunity, not a threat.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash