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NextGen Magazine


International Survey Finds Slight Majority Losing Faith in Capitalist Economic System

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Feb 13, 2020
The latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey, which for two decades has polled people around the world to measure their degree of trust in various institutions, has found that people are pessimistic about their economic prospects over the coming five years, and that a slight majority are losing faith in the capitalist economic system itself. 

The online survey of 34,000 people in 28 markets found that 56 percent agree that "capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world." This opinion was largely consistent among all ages, all genders, and all income quartiles. It was also the majority opinion in 22 of the 28 markets surveyed. The most hostile to capitalism were Thailand, India and France, with 75, 74, and 69, respectively,  percent holding the opinion that capitalism does more harm than good. The most pro-capitalist markets were South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan with only 46, 45, and 35 percent, respectively, agreeing that capitalism does more harm than good. In the United States, it was 47 percent who agreed with that statement.

The survey found that the capitalist system was also associated with a "sense of injustice" for 74 percent of poll respondents, a "desire for change" in 73 percent, a "lack of confidence" in 66 percent, and "a lack of hope" in 26 percent. 

This may also explain why 78 percent agree that “elites are getting richer while regular people struggle to pay their bills,” and that, in 15 of 28 markets, the majority are pessimistic about their financial future, with most believing they will not be better off in five years’ time than they are today. In the United States, this represents a seven-point drop in optimism since 2019. 

"Distrust is being driven by a growing sense of inequity and unfairness in the system," the report said. "The perception is that institutions increasingly serve the interests of the few over everyone."

While certain people might point to improving economic performance and wonder why it is people are so down on capitalism, the report said that people's opinions on the topic seem to be shaped less by GDP growth and more by income inequality. In developed markets, they found that growth had little effect on trust, as people's trust levels were roughly the same in both high- and low-growth markets. Meanwhile, high inequality was linked to less trust in government. Overall, fewer than one in five poll respondents believe the system is working for them. 

What is unknown, however, is what exactly both Edelman and the poll respondents mean by "capitalism," as the term can carry broad implications. For instance, are people meaning capitalism along its technical definition as the economic system in which private individuals are the main owners of value bearing commercial assets (a/k/a the means of production)? Or do they mean a general cultural feeling that private business should be prioritized? Are they referring to just plain trade under the belief that any sort of market is a capitalist market? Or are they referring to the Darwinist culture of international capitalism, separate from the institutional features of its functioning? That "as it exists today" introduces even more ambiguity because, for instance, it might encompass disapproval of, say, agricultural subsidies as needless government meddling, and so the "as it exists today" is not so much about the capitalist system of private property unto itself but, rather, its interaction with public policy and tax revenue distribution.

The word "socialism" can have similar difficulties. While about 50 percent of young adults say they approve of socialism, there's little to indicate what  they mean by the word. When saying they approve of socialism, are they referring to workers controlling the means of production, which necessitates the implementation of direct workplace democracy in the absence of a definitive singular owner? Or are they referring to a government-controlled social safety net a la FDR? Are they referring to the Maoist Direct Line? Or are they more about the anarcho-socialist Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread? Are they Mutualists like Proudhon? Or do they follow a Blanquist vanguard model? It is impossible to know. 

Beyond questions of capitalism, the study found that levels of trust in public institutions has wide variance based on social class. While the level of trust was down all over, those whom the researchers designated the "informed public" (defined as between the ages of 25 and 64; college educated; in the top 25 percent of household income per age group in each market; and reporting significant media consumption and engagement in public policy and business news) reported higher levels of trust in public institutions such as the government, compared to those categorized as simply the "mass population," i.e., everyone else. 

The "informed public" rated NGOs on the Trust Index at 70, business at 70, government at 59, and media at 61. By contrast, the "mass population" trust in NGOs was 55, business was 55, government was 47, and media was 47. Overall, the "informed public" rated public institutions a 65 on the Trust Index while the "mass population" rated them at 51.

It perhaps might be worth pointing out that someone who is college educated, in the top 25 percent of household income, and is significantly interested in business and public policy news might perhaps be more likely to be someone for whom the current system is, for lack of a better term, "working," and so therefore might be materially more inclined to trust public institutions.