I am a small business owner. I hope this doesn’t come as an immense surprise to you, given that I think most of my readers are aware of the fact that I am a freelancer. As a sole proprietor, I am considered a small business owner; I own and run a business that is small. I pay taxes as a business owner. I could, if I wanted to, join organisations of small business owners. I know many people who own small businesses in the community and we have similar interests, but they are probably not the interests you think they are.
So what I have to talk about today is both personal, in the sense that I am growing really frustrated with the rhetoric surrounding small business, and political, in the sense that I think many liberal and progressive people do not actually know what a small business is. Thus, they engage in attacks on ‘small business’ without really realising what they are doing, because they have bought, so thoroughly, into the ideas about business promoted by conservatives in this country.
If you do not own a small business or you aren’t in close contact with small business owners, you probably have the perception that we all lobby to avoid taxes, hate the idea of the minimum wage, think that unions should be abolished, want to exploit workers as much as possible, resist paying benefits to our employees, and are basically evil incarnate. That’s because organisations like the United States Chamber of Commerce promote those things, claiming that they represent small business owners, when in fact they represent the interests of corporations and medium to large businesses[1. The exact definitions of small/medium/large are highly elastic, but for the sake of convenience, let’s say they are talking about businesses with more than 50 employees.]. And conservatives also promote the same things, again claiming that they are speaking for small business owners.
The continued conservative insistence on using us as a tool for rhetoric has an intriguing dual effect. For one thing, it allows conservatives to position themselves as the champions of ‘ordinary Americans,’ especially when they can trot out the United States Chamber of Commerce to back them up. For another, it allows them to harness liberals and progressives in their war on small business in the United States, by making those people think that we are behind efforts to end minimum wage legislation, to engage in unionbusting, to resist living wages, and so forth. Conservative rhetoric positions us in a way that makes many liberals think we are actively working against the values they hold important, despite the fact that many of us are liberal, share those values, and actively work to oppose the programmes promoted by organizations like the US CoC. We are ‘main street’ so ‘tax cuts to help main street’ must apply to us, right?
Wrong. Most ‘small business’ tax cuts actually don’t extend to real small business owners. Most ‘business incentives’ supposedly aimed at promoting small businesses in the United States do not reach actual small businesses. In fact, many of the policies that people claim are designed to help us actively harm us. Not in the sense that we can’t line up for the government goodies because we don’t actually qualify for them, but that we cannot compete with larger businesses that are getting those benefits, and as a result, we go out of business. When we do, we take the wages, jobs, and benefits that we provide down with us, which harms our communities, which makes us angry, because most of us want to support out communities.
Conservatives and organisations like the US Chamber of Commerce do not speak for me and most small business owners. I can’t speak for every small business owner in the United States but the small business owners I know? Are interested, first and foremost, in creating a sustainable business that will bring benefits to their community. They are interested in paying a living wage to their employees and providing benefits. They are interested in job creation. They are interested in making opportunities for advancement, helping employees pay for continuing education, offering loans to employees in need.
They are interested in keeping dollars local to make their communities stronger. They care about the rights of their workers and they want to avoid products produced with the use of exploited labour as well as making their workplaces safe and pleasant for their staff. They want to be accountable to their communities and they want to engage in charity and other actions designed to benefit the places where they both do business and live. They want to keep prices on products low so everyone can afford them, they want to create discount programs for people like students and poor folks who can’t afford sticker price.
I’m a small business owner. I spent a lot of time telling myself and other people that I was not, because I had a warped perception of what ‘small business’ was, since I never stopped to actually think about who is behind the narrative about small business owners put forward in this country. Then I started actually interacting with small business owners and talking about issues that were important to me, and I found that our interests dovetailed. We were both concerned about the inability to make a living wage here. We were both concerned about the high cost of living. We were both concerned about exploitative labour practices. We were both concerned about worker health and safety. We were both concerned about workers being trapped in dead end jobs with no possibility for escaping to something better. We were both concerned about access to health care, about overwork, and a myriad of other issues.
A lot of minorities are small business owners, as are people like single parents, people with disabilities struggling to survive, and other members of oppressed classes. All of us are trying to break out of an exploitative system to create opportunities for ourselves and members of our communities. When I hear liberal people talking dismissively about small businesses, claiming that we are the enemy, claiming that we harm communities, it hurts me on a very personal level.
And it reminds me that many people are not capable of critically evaluating information as presented. People are relying on rhetoric from people they know are primarily concerned with the interests of the wealthy to determine how they think about small businesses. It doesn’t occur to any of them that conservatives are actually fighting a war on small business, are trying to prevent people in oppressed classes from breaking free of exploitative and abusive employment situations. They take the claims about ‘what small businesses want’ at face value, without actually talking to any small business owners in their own communities.