A mere 35% of U.S. adults believe the economy is performing well. That leaves a majority of 65% who hold a negative view of current economic performance.

These attitudes can be expected in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, profligate government spending and supply chain gridlock. Yet, it’s also indicative of a larger trend of economic concern among the general population.

Support for capitalism, the dominant organizing system of our mixed economy, has been declining in popularity. A 2020 Edleman Trust Barometer poll showed that 56% of respondents agreed with the statement “capitalism is doing more harm than good.”

Open and competitive markets are credited with dramatically improving quality of life, decreasing poverty even while the global population increased and unleashing the medical, technological and scientific discoveries of the modern world. In short, capitalism has made life wildly better for most everyone in the free world and is continuing to do so. 

So why is a system that has done so much good declining in popularity so rapidly? 

In reality, many likely do not oppose a system of truly free enterprise, property rights and meritocracy at all. Rather, they oppose an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of the many and utilizes government subsidies and regulatory capture to squelch competition and economic diversity.

There is a big difference between capitalism, defined as a system where resources are owned and grown by anyone who wants to take the risk to start a venture, and crony capitalism, defined as anti-competitive measures by major enterprises, supported by massive campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, along with self-dealing between regulators and their wealthy clients. These activities are the antithesis of free enterprise conditions that allow for the creation of businesses, jobs and wealth that allows families, individuals and communities to thrive. 

Additionally, large portions of our economy — particularly the middle class — are feeling left behind. Federal Reserve data shows that the middle 60% of households’ ownership of the national wealth has fallen to just only 26%. Their ownership of real estate has fallen from 44% a generation ago to 38% today. Since 1971, wage growth has nearly stagnated while GDP and productivity have increased significantly. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that support for our system of private ownership has declined as people’s stake, participation in and ownership of that system has also fallen. 

Yet, large government is not the answer. Even in wealthy countries, a larger state is often correlated with increased corruption that is increasingly more difficult to detect. How much of our bloated federal budget is allocated to subsidies that distort markets and produce negative social outcomes? Our nation deserves better. 

As I see it, there are multiple things we can do: 

1. Provide more and better economic education. The more our current and rising generations understand about the power of a truly free market, the more they will be willing to participate in driving the kinds of changes we must make to our current government and political systems to allow the greatest aspects of a capitalistic economy to truly succeed. 

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2. Seek and support better political candidates. We must also ensure these candidates are genuinely instilled in the principles of sustainable business for all communities and sectors, not a big government system that is driven by the financial support of the political and economic elite. 

3. Move toward smaller and more effective government. We need to reduce government’s unilateral control over the economy toward an inclusive and truly fair economy that allows for growth and opportunity. When the next generation sees that success can be achieved by talent, innovation, hard work and drive, not by political connections and payoffs, the incentive (and the return) for creating and growing businesses and creating new positions will thrive. 

We must accelerate these efforts now. When the drive to accomplish these goals reaches critical mass, and when it can take hold within a government system that is genuinely working for the growth and sustainability of its communities and citizens, we can enjoy a true free market system that represents the values a well-enacted capitalistic economy is ideally poised to achieve. 

Trent Staggs is the mayor of Riverton, Utah.

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