While one often hears a lot of talk about the virtues of “mom and pop” shops (and the evils of “big box” stores) policy makers do remarkably little to encourage the growth and health of small businesses.
While the federal government has created a federal boondoggle ostensibly designed to favor small business — known as the Small Business Administration — only a tiny number of businesses ever benefit from anything the agency does.
Policies Stacked Against Small Businesses
In actual practice, policymakers fawn over large firms, creating special programs for tax breaks and subsidies, as made obvious every time a large firm looks for a new place to put a corporate headquarters. The stated political justification is often that “this business will produce a large number of jobs!” This rationale, however, ignores the fact that if a thousand of the city’s small businesses were given a similar tax break, they would likely produce a comparable number of new jobs. This is conveniently ignored, and policymakers instead choose to favor certain large firms, which in turn makes it harder for small firms to compete.
At the same time, governments at all levels relentlessly hand down ever more regulations and mandates to businesses of all sizes. Yet it is small firms who suffer the most because they have less access to financing, equity, and resources needed to cope with mounting regulatory requirements. Licensing and labor regulations create more pitfalls for small business owners to fall into, while locking many potential business owners out of industries entirely, unless they comply with arbitrary “training” or certification mandates. These mandates can be quite draconian, such as Iowa’s requirement that barbers receive 2,100 hours of training — more training than is required of a paramedic — in order to cut hair.
Other regulations indirectly disadvantage small businesses as well. As finance researcher Karen Petrou noted in the wake of the Great Recession, banking regulations in recent years have made it harder on small businesses:
[C]apital requirements imposed after the banking crisis make it a lot more expensive for banks to do a startup small-business loan than go into wealth management. Startup loans are riskier than wealth management, of course, but the capital costs have become prohibitive, and banks don’t lose money on purpose.
Small Businesses Increase Competition for Workers
It’s at this point that a seasoned reader might expect me to go into a variety of explanations about how the small business economy is important to GDP growth, and to employment growth, and to vague notions of “innovation.”
But that’s not where I want to go with this.
Yes, the small business economy is good for employment and economic development. But small businesses also serve very important social functions, while offering benefits to many workers as well.
The small business economy offers more options for workers who are competing for wage work, while also offering a potential exit from wage work altogether — and entry into sole proprietorship.
In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises notes that one of the greatest limitations on a worker’s bargaining power with employers is the ability of a firm to exercise monopoly power over hiring. The thing is, this is impossible in a relatively free market. So long as new firms can enter the marketplace, hiring firms will come under pressure from competitors, and thus bid up workers’ wages. As Mises notes, firms must compete with each other for all types of resources, whether building materials, square footage, or financial services. It is no different with workers. Consequently, one of the worst things that can happen to a worker is for governments to create what Mises calls “an institutional restriction of access to entrepreneurship.” If governments act to limit the ease with which new businesses can enter the marketplace and compete with existing firms, this lessens the power of workers. The more firms a worker has to chose from, the better off the worker is. This is, of course, facilitated by a diverse and healthy small business economy.
More Potential Opportunities for All Types of Workers
Benefits for workers also extend to “eccentric” or “niche” workers who might find themselves otherwise relatively unemployable.
After all, large firms often become large firms because they excel at catering to the needs of the most common preferences in the marketplace. Workers who are accustomed to dealing with these mainstream preferences — whether they be along linguistic, cultural, or socio-economic lines — will be a good fit at the large firms. On the other hand, a worker who has poor English-language skills, but who is well versed in in dealing with customers of a certain ethnicity, may find employment far more easy to come by among certain small business owners who cater to a niche, ethnic-enclave, or socio-economic group.
In other words, the existence of numerous small businesses don’t just provide more employment opportunities in the abstract. They often provide more opportunities to workers who have the most trouble in finding employment otherwise.
This is part of the reason why small business ownership has so long been an important part of economic development for ethnic minority groups and for immigrants. Today in the United States, around 25% of U.S. firms are founded by immigrants, and this share rises to above 40% in states like California and NewYork.
And immigrant small business owners are often just part of a growing economy of minority-owned businesses, whether founded by native-born or immigrant owners. According to CNBC:
Business ownership among minorities has been on the rise in recent years. Between 2002 and 2007, minority-owned businesses increased 46 percent, while nonminority-owned businesses grew 10 percent during that same period…
In 2007, Asians owned 1.6 million businesses, African-Americans owned 1.9 million, [and] Hispanics owned 2.3 million.
It’s not a coincidence that many people outside the cultural mainstream are founding their own businesses. Often, these businesses are founded precisely because they provide relatively better job security and flexibility to owners and workers who could not find similarly attractive terms at larger mainstream firms.
Benefits Beyond Money Profits
Economists often debate whether or not the small-business economy is “efficient.” Some have even suggested that small businesses should be regarded as harmful because they use resources that larger firms might be able to more “efficiently” use due to advantages of economy of scale.
This is, of course, a terrible way of looking at small businesses
In addition to the benefits offered workers, small businesses often provide a wide variety of benefits to both owners and consumers in the form of services to the community, and the psychic profits afforded to owners.1 Unfortunately for small businesses, many of these benefits don’t show up as money profits, and thus economists ignore them.
For example, it is clear that that demonstrated preference of a small business owner is to run a small business even if, in theory, he or she might be able to command a higher wage some other way. It’s not difficult to imagine why this might be. Many small business owners — even if the enterprise does not provide for an especially high income — prefer self-employment to collecting a wage because it offers the sort of flexibility, control, and peace of mind that is not often available to wage earners. While self-employment can often mean long hours, it also often means the proprietor is unlikely to lose all of his income at once, due to being laid off. Even if the business becomes less profitable, the proprietor is not going to walk to his desk one day to find a pink slip. Moreover, if the economy is weak, a business owner can temporarily cut his own wages with more flexibility and ease than he can normally cut the wages of an employee. If times are good, a business owner can temporarily increase his own hours (and income) to take advantage of the sudden increase in demand. For a great many business owners, this sense of control over one’s schedule and career are worth it, even if the full benefits do not show up in any government statistic.
Negative Attitudes Toward Small Business Endure
In spite of all of this, we can expect both policymakers and pundits to largely ignore small businesses and to continue to ignore the high costs imposed on small firms and small entrepreneurs by government regulations.
Some even continue to attack small business owners because they are allegedly not regulated enough.
Last year, for example, the left-wing Jacobin magazine declared that “small businesses are overrated” and that “[w]e shouldn’t fetishize mom and pops. They offer lower wages, skimpier benefits, and inferior labor protections.”
This “analysis” by author Matt Bruenig attempted to make the case that since some government regulations don’t apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees, this creates a “loophole” through which workers can be oppressed with impunity by small business owners. The ideal economy for Bruenig, it seems, is one in which even the smallest firm must do all the same paperwork and pay the same government mandated benefits as huge corporations.
In real life, of course, this would ensure that few new small firms are ever created at all.
Fortunately, even the center-left Institute for Local Self-Reliance sees the danger in attacking small businesses. As noted by the ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell, small businesses disperse economic resources more evenly throughout a community, and, as Mises noted, they provide more options to employees while creating more competition for large firms. Nor do small firms really pay less, unless we’re talking about highly-paid managerial jobs. Although Bruenig thinks small business should be trashed because they allegedly pay lower wages than large firms, Mitchell writes:
For low- and middle-income workers, there is no wage gap between small and large firms. People in the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution earn about the same working at large firms as they do at small. In other words, the fact that big companies pay more on average is solely a function of the earnings of their highest paid employees.
In fact, this myth that larger firms offer a cornucopia of higher wages for everyone has become widespread across the ideological spectrum. A belief in this trope is partly why Kevin Williamson at National Review last month insisted that government “should do more for big business,” and that big business is getting the short end of the stick thanks to a romanticizing of small business. But in the age of “too big to fail,” the idea that big firms are America’s punching bag is not terribly convincing. Meanwhile, recent efforts by conservatives and leftists to denounce small businesses as overrated is not an encouraging trend.
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