Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey

64 Percent of Millennials Favor a Free Market Over a Government-Managed Economy

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Millennials are free marketeers. When asked to choose which is the better system, 64 percent of millennials say a free market system and 32 percent favor an economy managed by the government. By a narrower margin, 52 percent favor capitalism and 42 percent choose socialism.

Millennials appear to be more favorable toward socialism than a government-managed economy, even though the latter is arguably less interventionist. This raises the question: Do millennials know what socialism means?

Perhaps not. A 2010 CBS/New York Times survey found that when Americans were asked to use their own words to define the word "socialism" millennials were the least able to do so. Accord to the survey, only 16 percent of millennials could define socialism as government ownership, or some variation thereof, compared to 30 percent of Americans over 30 (and 57% of tea partiers, incidentally).

This may explain why socialism garners greater support than a government-managed economy. Interestingly, millennial support for a government-managed economy (32%) mirrors national favorability toward the word "socialism" (31%). Millennial preferences may not be so different from older generations once terms are defined.

Another way to look at this is that millennial preferences become more pronounced when the economic system is described precisely. Language about capitalism and socialism is vague, and using these terms assumes knowledge that millennials may not have acquired yet. Moreover, these words may have taken on different meaning in the minds of most millennials, especially for a cohort who didn't grow up during the Cold War and came of political age during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. For instance, capitalism may imply government favoritism instead of a free market, and socialism may imply protecting the vulnerable.

Millennials Like Markets But Aren't Sure if they Promote Opportunity

Millennials like the market-based economic system. However, they are unsure if markets are the best means of promoting economic opportunity. This uncertainty over whether markets or government help drive income mobility may be a significant factor in their increased support for government action.

When asked to choose, 37 percent say the free market system is the "most effective in promoting economic opportunity" while 36 percent think "government programs and services" are the best way to promote opportunity. A significant share, 27 percent, are not sure whether markets or government programs do the best job ensuring economic opportunity. While many people think both the free market system and government programs are important, the question was intended to measure which was most important.

Belief that markets better promote economic opportunity rises with education. Of those with high school degrees or less, 31 percent say markets work best, but among college graduates this number rises to 44 percent. (Education does not increase the view that government services best provide opportunity).

Self-described conservatives (54%) and libertarians (76%) strongly endorse markets as the best vehicle for climbing the income ladder. Conversely, pluralities of liberals (45%) and progressives (42%) think government programs and services are most effective. Moderates are divided, with 40 percent expecting government services and 36 percent expecting markets to best drive income mobility.

Ambivalence Over Market- or Government-Driven Income Mobility May Be Behind Increased Millennial Support for Government Action

Millennials' uncertainty about whether markets or government drive people up the income ladder may partly explain their views on activist government.

Among those who think markets best promote opportunity, 59 percent think government is doing too many things, 54 percent don't think it's necessary to increase government spending for the poor, and 58 percent say government shouldn't redistribute wealth to reduce income inequality.

Among those who think government programs and services are most effective in promoting economic opportunity, 67 percent think government should be doing more than it's currently doing, 74 percent want to increase government-provided financial assistance to the poor, and 56 percent say government should redistribute income.

Millennials came of an impressionable political age in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. A third are living at home with their parents. Gallup has reported that one in three young adults are underemployed, more than twice as likely as older Americans. 38 Moreover, 46 percent of millennials believe they will be worse off than their parents' generation, 36 percent believe they will be the same, and only 16 percent think they will be better off.

For a significant share of millennials, who have not yet experienced or observed market-driven mobility and success, government action appears to be a viable alternative. Consequently, greater support for government among this cohort may be in part driven by the difficult economy that has undermined the view that markets offer more upward mobility than the state.

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To learn more about millennials, check out Reason-Rupe's new report.