Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last year’s politicized and panicked lockdowns of the economy will be exacting costs for years. From deaths of despair like suicides and drug overdoses, to lost years of learning in schools and psychological fallout from children being isolated––we will be dealing with such consequences of policies that have nothing to do with science, and everything to do with political expediency. One other calamity is the fate of small businesses, met with callous indifference on the part of our cognitive elites who worked from home and never missed a paycheck.
Last year about 200,000 small businesses, with millions more still at risk, were another casualty of our feckless federal bureaucrats and state government tyrants. In addition to the lockdowns, these businesses also fell prey to months of nationwide riots, arson, looting, and vandalism that was tolerated and often abetted by state and federal authorities. Years of hard work were lost and dreams destroyed.
And now the hyped Delta variant hysteria is generating calls for more lockdowns and other impediments to small business success. This blow comes on top of the damage to the work force inflicted by giving the unemployed––who could have been hired by small enterprises trying to restore their businesses––perverse incentives to stay home, leaving many businesses chronically understaffed. Meanwhile, the people morally preening and shouting about “social justice” and “empathy” just callously pass on by.
One of this country’s most important avenues for fulfilling the American Dream has been blocked, and the virtues of self-reliance, self-control, frugality, hard work, and independence––the bedrock virtues that make us worthy of political freedom and that define the American character––are disappearing.
I learned the important role of small businesses from my own family. My grandfather came from Italy in 1906, an “illiterate peasant” according to the officials at Ellis Island. He made his way to the San Joaquin Valley to work in the fields. With hard work and persistence he managed to own his own country store and gas station, a feat impossible in the still-feudal conditions of rural Southern Italy. His four children were all successful, as were his grandchildren and now his great-grandchildren. One even managed to become a professor, something else unthinkable for an illiterate peasant’s grandchild in Southern Italy.
I also know what it’s like to own a small business from my father. He was a Dust-Bowl migrant from West Texas who dropped out of school and rode the rails to California. He trained as a barber, but his dream was to raise cattle. He did both, owning his own barber shops and raising cattle on 180 acres––not enough to support his family by running cattle, but enough to satisfy his boyhood dream and earn some extra money. By the time I was 11 or 12, my brother and I provided the labor, and my mom kept the books for both enterprises.
My father succeeded by dint of hard work and grim determination. He spent five days a week standing behind a barber’s chair, next to the cash register. After work and on Sunday and Monday, we did ranch work: chopping weeds in the pasture, building fences and corrals, loading hay on the pickup, irrigating the pasture, doctoring ailing calves, pulling breech calves or castrating bull-calves. This labor went on year-round, with no sick-leave or paid vacations, no unemployment insurance, no boss paying half of Social Security and Medicare taxes, no legal limits on how many hours one worked.
My dad and mom carried the whole load, all the anxiety and worry, all the dread of the unexpected. The work seemed endless, my dad standing on his feet all day cutting hair, then coming home to dig postholes or string barbed-wire or load hay or dig up a leaky irrigation pipe, with just a couple of boys for help. Why do it? For the satisfaction and pride that comes from being independent, answering to no boss, and making something with your own sweat and tears.
Without that economic freedom and opportunity to strike out on one’s own, the American Dream couldn’t have happened for my mother’s family or my father, and of course for millions of other immigrants and interstate migrants. And it is still happening today the same way. Owning one’s own business remains the pathway to a life better than the one you chose to leave, and worth all the risk and uncertainty, and long days and troubled nights. People from all over the world, most without professional skills or education, still come to America and succeed because of its open economy, and their own characters and virtues, especially the ability to do hard, often dirty work. And many Americans still pull up stakes and move to find better opportunities for owning one’s own business.
In many states like California, however, government regulations on the environment, health and safety, or licensing are barriers to success. Big businesses, of course, can afford to comply, which is why for over a century big corporations have been supporters of government regulations that much of the time they help write to advantage their industry. As we are seeing today with the social media and tech oligarchs, big corporations prefer big government. Small mom-and-pop enterprises can’t compete with such economies of scale. But despite those barriers, industrious dreamers still try to make it by owning their own businesses.
Consider the landscape maintenance business in California. Drive up and down the state and see how many of such businesses are owned by any ethnicity other than Latinos. The answer is not many. Are these immigrants crowding out American blacks or whites or assimilated Mexican Americans? Or is it that many Americans are simply unwilling to do some physically taxing, dirty work, or to take the exorbitant risks and worry that come with starting a business? We need immigration policies that select those with the characters and virtues necessary for fulfilling the American Dream, rather than indiscriminately opening our gates.
The entrepreneurial spirit in many Americans has waned, along with the capacity for hard work. And a redistributionist government with scores of entitlement programs makes it possible to forgo gainful employment. As a result, the old drive to be your own boss, along with the virtues and character necessary for such independence, is weakening. The virtues of independence and self-sufficiency are lost and replaced by dependency and an intolerance for discomfort and risk. No surprise, then, that the American character over the last few decades had deteriorated, and many are content to watch government inexorably reduce their freedom and autonomy; or that so many docilely comply with irrational, unscientific covid “mandates” that blow with the political winds.
Finally, there’s the spectacle of our “woke” cadres who bleed for the oppressed while utterly ignoring the calamity that has befallen many minority business owners destroyed by lockdowns and, more reprehensible, by the burning and looting of their businesses––all on the pretext that “black lives matter.”
It is a truism found on every page of history that tyrannies always target the mediating institutions like businesses that are independent of political power. This vibrant civil society, as de Tocqueville observed nearly two centuries ago, is a critical dimension of American exceptionalism, for it widens the space for political freedom and the virtues like self-reliance that nurture it.
So are we surprised that the Leviathan progressives don’t care what happens to small businesses? The virtues and character required are also those necessary for nourishing and sustaining the political freedom the progressives are trying to diminish. Better for them to have docile dependents waiting for another government check.