Some of you may have seen a variety of blog posts in the last week or two discussing the results of a Pew survey in which people were asked whether they viewed a variety of political terms positively or negatively. Tim Cavanaugh at Reason has most of the data and a libertarian perspective on it. The results are not too bad for libertarian-minded folks.
Today, however, I discovered a new wrinkle in that data. A blogger asked the Pew folks for the data broken down by age group, which you can see here. There's several interesting things in that data but I want to highlight just one:
People aged 18-29 were the most positive of any age group about the word "libertarian" but the most negative of any age group about the word "capitalism."
At first this seems contradictory and one's first thought might be that young people don't know the meaning of one term or the other. Or both. But I have a different hypothesis. I suspect they might generally know the meaning of libertarian, or at least know enough to have a decent idea. But I also suspect that they think "capitalism" describes the status quo in the US. After all, don't both left-wing critics and right-wing apologists talk about our capitalist economy? Isn't that how most Americans describe it? Given both the mess we're in at the moment and the ways in which young people have likely heard lots of "anti-capitalist" ideas in high school and college, who is surprised that they have the most negative view?
I recently had a two-part Freeman Online piece about why we might want to think about ditching the term "capitalism," and along with Sheldon Richman, Roderick Long, Gary Chartier, and Charles Johnson, I was part of a panel on that topic at APEE last month. Though we have different takes on it, what we all seem to agree on is that "capitalism" is too often used to describe the awful results of the mixed economy, which works to the disadvantage of those of us who might wish to use it to describe the free market ideal.
If my hypothesis above is correct, it's perhaps another reason to dump the term. Looking at those Pew results and the enthusiasm of young folks for Ron Paul in 2008, I think this generation might well be more open to libertarian ideas than any before it. But if "libertarian" equals "capitalism" and their understanding of capitalism is the status quo, we've got a major marketing problem.
It's too bad the Pew folks didn't also ask what people thought about the phrase "free market" or "free enterprise." I'm willing to bet a nice steak dinner that young folks are much more positive about either of those terms than "capitalism." Those of us who want freer/freed markets and want to appeal to younger people might think seriously about not using the word "capitalism." There's a lot of reasons to drop the term and the apparent negative connotation it has especially among the young is yet another on that list.