As a very young man, I was fortunate enough to start my own company out of my apartment using a small amount of investment capital from friends and family. Over time, that business grew to have over 6,000 employees and revenues in excess of $2 billion. Over nearly a 40-year span, my team and I built what some would consider a remarkable track record, as measured by both sales and profits.
Our founders read The Wealth of Nations and created a government that was intended to cause little to no interference with the right of Americans to own and operate an independent business.
Because of my experience growing that business, I feel a special kinship with small, privately owned businesses and their owners. I also come from a middle-class background, one that shaped me into the person I am today. It is through both the lens of entrepreneur and member of the middle-class that I look through when reflecting upon this Independence Day.
Our Declaration of Independence, which is celebrating its 245th anniversary this year, was a political document that informed an empire (Great Britain) that a small colony on a distant shore some 3,500 miles away was going to break away and, by inference, form its own nation. Independence was being sought at the highest possible level: the nation-state.
A decade-plus later, when our founding fathers got around to creating that new nation, it was clear that the “independence” theme was going to run throughout every artery of the constitutional body they were building. They were so concerned with ensuring independence all the way down to the smallest unit—the individual—that, after writing a full constitution that limited government in a way envisioned by the minds of Cicero, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and others, they went even further. They further enshrined our independence in the Bill of Rights, putting an exclamation point on the need for every individual to remain independent from the excesses of government.
The above-named thinkers were not the only ones who influenced our Founders. In 1776 (an eventful year), a Scottish Professor by the name of Adam Smith penned a book that has come to be known under its abridged title The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith, who has been credited as being the founding father of economics, described his observations of what was taking place in Britain-led Europe during the first industrial revolution. He noted how the independent workings and self-interested actions of individual merchants seemed to be guided by an “invisible hand” that led to them cumulatively provide the needed and wanted goods and services to the public.
Our founders read The Wealth of Nations and created a government that was intended to cause little to no interference with the right of Americans to own and operate an independent business. That was a fundamental part of our genesis as a nation.
My, how times have changed.
[caption id="attachment_191135" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Amazon storefront.[/caption]
Today, the small independent and privately-owned business is under assault in a manner that our founders’ likely feared to imagine but tried to prevent. Over the past decade, we have seen consolidation across many industries evidenced by large banks acquiring and absorbing community banks, big-box retailers wiping out family-owned operations, and professional rollups of smaller players in industries important to our national health and welfare. For any business owner who wishes to remain independent, they find themselves fighting an almost unwinnable battle against adversaries who are better armed with wealth and buttressed with big government assistance.
On the day that marks our national independence, I ask you this question: Who is standing up for the independence of American privately owned businesses?
Who is standing up for the independence of American privately owned businesses?
For those not preoccupied with such things, you might think that the Chamber of Commerce is the group tasked with helping those kinds of companies. You might be a member of your local Chamber, or maybe you have friends that are. They host local gatherings in communities all across the country. There are luncheons, and speakers, and fundraisers, and all sorts of activities designed to build camaraderie and create a kinship between shop owners.
Sound wonderful? That’s at the local level. The story at the national level is far different. If you visit the official website for the U.S. Chamber and click on the tab for “small business,” you will be greeted by the heading “Small Business Membership: You are Our Top Priority.” Below that, you will find the following:
“Here at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we have one mission: To help business leaders like you grow your company, create jobs, and strengthen our economy. We are working every day to elevate the voice of America’s small business owners, highlight the role they play in the nation’s economy, and support Main Street businesses through challenging and uncertain times—like the ones we face now.”
Here is the problem with that statement. If we use the old adage of “follow the money,” we find that the Chamber of Commerce is not receiving its real funding from those small, independent business owners gathered around a luncheon table at your local restaurant hearing a speaker share “five tips for growing your retail store business.”
A 2016 study released by Public Citizen revealed that, of the claimed 300,000 direct Chamber members (as well as an underlying number of three million indirectly represented members), large donations came from a small, concentrated group of only about 1,500. The median donation size (the donation level at which half of the total number of donations given are above and half are below the number) was $25,000, and the modal donation size (the amount most frequently represented) was $10,000.
Clearly, the funding of the Chamber is skewed toward big donors, and that means big business. This has led the Chamber to abandon smaller companies and instead shift their allegiance and lobbying efforts toward the largest corporations.
[caption id="attachment_191136" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Italian fascist poster.[/caption]
We are rapidly moving toward what resembles the early to mid-20th Century fascist economic model found in select European countries. This model features a powerful central government with each important industry dominated by just one or a few major players. Under this kind of structure, big business and big government can work in a united manner, setting and executing national political and economic policies.
Where was the Chamber during all this? How were they advocating for the financial well-being of their “top-priority” members?
During the recent pandemic, we saw how large companies got richer, while small independent businesses got buried under rules from both the national and state level. The pandemic policies tended to favor big business either directly, through capacity limits which only allowed the large to comply, or indirectly through burdensome restrictions on commerce that only the large could afford. Where was the Chamber during all this? How were they advocating for the financial well-being of their “top-priority” members?
They were nowhere to be found. Their leadership did nothing meaningful in support of the small independents. Chamber leaders may be feckless, but they are not fools. They know where the money comes from.
[caption id="attachment_191137" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Small business foreclosure.[/caption]
There have been attempts to organize privately-owned companies and to give them a unified voice. One such effort has been undertaken by Home Depot founder and noted philanthropist Bernie Marcus through his Job Creator Network (JCN). This organization does good work in promoting the interests of the independents. JCN provides a solid alternative to the Chamber, but they cannot do it alone. In order to restore and strengthen the independent American business, entrepreneurs like myself who were able to use the system to achieve success in our chosen industries need to step up and join the fight. It is not a choice we have. It is an obligation.
Protecting independent businesses means protecting the middle class.
My move from business to the world of political and economic ideas, described in my book American Restoration, has been driven by my passion to support the American middle class. A certain plurality (if not an outright majority) of independent business owners are members of that middle class. Certainly, most of their employees are members. I grew up in a middle-class family, and I know that the stability it provided for me during my formative years was a key contributor to my being able to go on to achieve success.
Protecting independent businesses means protecting the middle class. Our original Declaration of Independence was a call to action to help free a nation. Today, in 2021, let us have a new call to action for each of us who are able to rise up in support of the independence of American privately owned business. Their independence is part of our national heritage and vital to our future prosperity.
This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection released July 4th, 2021: "INDEPENDENCE DAY 2021." You can read the other pieces in the collection here.