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The Young and the Economically Illiterate

Earlier this month, the Higher Education Research Institute reported that today’s young people are more narcissistic than ever. Our drive to succeed surpasses that of our parents. We expect a great future for our generation. Our intellectual, leadership and social self-confidence are at all-time highs.

Exciting, right? Doesn’t personal ambition drive innovation and progress? Isn’t self-interest the fount of the invisible hand’s innumerable blessings?

Under the right circumstances, yes—unwillingness to settle for one’s current state of affairs is a healthy incentive for entrepreneurial innovation. “The mark of the creative mind,” economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “is that it defies a part of what it has learned or, at least, adds something new to it.” But considering the economic beliefs of the average American young person, this news couldn’t be worse. The fact is, most of today’s young people are economically illiterate. Most don’t understand how the economy works, or what drives economic progress. Most have no commitment to the notion of earned success. This was demonstrated by a recent paper by University of Pennsylvania economists Bhattacharjee, Dana and Baron in a 2010 paper. Citing multiple surveys of consumers’ opinions regarding profit and social value, they write:
We find a strong negative correlation between perceived profit and social value across both industries and specific firms. People report little faith in the power of markets to create and reward value, neglecting the incentive properties of profit and focusing instead on the perceived intentions of firms.
Holding profit and social value to be at odds defies even the most cursory understanding of economics. Profits, of course, do not detract from a firm’s social value, but are simply the reward for efficiently satisfying consumer demand. High profits are earned by those who most deftly meet the needs of their fellow human beings. A rejection of the notion that profit correlates with social value, then, reveals a deep ignorance of any and all economic theories. But scientific surveys are hardly needed to uncover the economic illiteracy of the Millennial generation. It was my generation, indeed, who assured the eight-year presidency of progressive Barack Obama. It was this generation who hailed Obamacare’s victory over the largely unwilling elderly population. And it is the Millennial generation who overwhelmingly support mandated forgiveness for their unforgivably high levels of college loan debt. Ironically, this same generation is the most educated in all of human history. Never before has public education been so readily available to every single child, and a university education as easy as a single FAFSA application. Even further, the Internet has made information freely available to anyone with access to a public library. In that light, the economic ignorance of today’s young people is truly sobering. But the dangers of ignorance itself stand pale in comparison to the hazards created by ignorance accompanied by a drive to succeed—the very combination possessed by young people today. In fact, the more “educated” an economically illiterate individual, the more likely he or she will advance ideas wholly antithetical to economic progress and human flourishing. This happens all the time. Well-meaning individuals seeking to benefit their fellow men unknowingly plot the world’s economic demise with various welfare, entitlement and regulatory schemes they wrongly think to be steps toward equality and social harmony. The more educated these individuals are, the less likely they will be persuaded of their mistake. As Isabel Paterson wrote:
Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends … when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.
Unless young people recognize the unwavering power of economic law and accept the insights of praxeological science, my generation’s entrepreneurial energies will be spent in vain. Their arrogant attempts to conjure wealth, avoid fiscal austerity and thwart unstoppable market forces will crash and burn.