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Liberalism and Small Proprietors

Sunday, July 18, 2004
A conservative acquaintance of mine has said in response to my arguments on behalf of liberalism that "one day you'll realize that small business is important." Now at the time, I wasn't sure how to respond to anything but the patronizing attitude. But now I think I might have something to say.

First it's important to sketch out what we mean exactly by small businesses. Most people divide the economy up into only 3 groups : business, labor, and consumers. The right represents the first, the left the second, and they fight over the third. Predictably this formulation conceals as much as it reveals. Each can be divided into high, middle, and low status groups. Labor is divided between professionals, high skill laborers, and low skill laborers. Consumers vary dramatically in wealth, and lumping IBM with your neighborhood grocery store is a little silly.

The right loves to pose as the champion of small business against the liberal threats of big government regulation, high taxes, and unionization, each of which poses real problems for small proprietors, whether they be farmers, independent retailers, or small producers. The liberal response has usually been... well, we never have really responded to this charge.

This situation really hurts. It hands over a major (and influential) constituency to the Republicans without a fight, a group that has major political, symbolic and theoretical importance. Small proprietors are one of the intellectual bedrocks of popular government, going all the way back to the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent small farmer (and before). This vision of a nation of shopkeepers and yeoman has tremendous symbolic resonance, as well as theoretical validity- small proprietors are the original middle class, the prerequisite for successful republics.

So we know that small proprietors should be preserved. So how do we square that desire with our interest in protecting consumers (through regulations) and labor (minumum wage, safety)? It's difficult, but let me take a stab at it. Small businesses are a fundamentally different enterprise than big corporations, and therefore government should have a different relationship. Whereas we should have an adversarial relationships with IBM, the mom and pop store should be actively supported. Our policies should make it easier for them to exist, and we should do so in a way that achieves our goals but places more of the burden for doing so on the state, rather than the business. And we should emphasize the importance of government intervention in creating an environment amenable to small businesses.

Which is where the political bite comes in. Republicans champion small business rhetorically, but only rhetorically. Their real alliegiance are to the the megacorps, who have a fundamentally different interest from small proprietors. Just look at what Wal-Mart has done to the Main streets of Middle America. These are two groups very hostile to one another, who are in a very uneasy coalition at the moment.

A coalition we should be able to explode. By crusading against big companies and their abuses, we can not only project a persuasive populist message to working class people. We can also win over a substantial segment of the small business class. Defending the small farm and the small business against the depredations of the big company was, after all, the original impetus behind populism and its latter-day descendent, liberalism. It allows us to champion small town and middle class america against wealthy elites who live in palaces, removed from the lives of ordinary americans. If this isn't a winning political message, I don't know what is.

So what would I say to my right-wing friend now? "I am for small business, which is why I'm a Democrat."

And then chuckle at the look on his face.

P.S. There is a problem with blogger right now, so the comments function isn't working.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:35 PM
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