During any heatedly contested political battle, passions and rhetoric run hot and it’s easy for the combatants to stumble off the page and into the ever present political quicksand. I write about small business, not politics, but the candidates vying to occupy the White House have been talking about the small business community in ways that I think miss the point.
The present controversy began with a quote from a President Obama speech delivered on July 13th in Virginia. Whether he meant to say these words this way or not can be debated, they came out of his mouth like this, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” It didn’t take long for the presumed Republican candidate Mitt Romney to use those words as kindling wood for a hot campaign fire. For me as an advocate for small business and the entrepreneurial spirit in America, they point to an important philosophical discussion about the relationship between government and the private sector.
I say that business and government working together for a couple of hundred years is what has lifted our country to a historically great level in world history. If America was only about individual enterprise without a strong central government, we’d be a series of fiefdoms in search of a common mission and struggling to rise to even a third-world level. However if the country labored under a dominant and hyper weighty national government without room for real enterprise, we’d be circling the drain just like Greece and some American cities. All government revenue comes from taxes, fees and levies, so they need profitable enterprises as their own source of “mother’s milk.” Business has proven it can exist without a capable central government, but that government would wither and die without the efforts of enterprising citizens and the fruits of their business creations.
Back to the jousting politicians and what all the heat is about. Candidate Romney says the President’s attitude shows a lack of appreciation for personal initiative and success. I give President Obama some slack because in context he was probably referring to major infrastructure projects such as highways, rail lines and power grids when he said “you didn’t build that.” In truth, our cornerstone infrastructure growth was often based on joint ventures between governments and entrepreneurs.
The great infrastructure that enables the movement of goods and people from coast to coast is a major example of how free enterprise and the federal government worked together. The First Transcontinental Railroad line was opened in 1869, celebrated by the “last spike” being driven at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was enabled by Congressional legislation passed during the Civil War. Congress supported it with 30-year U.S. government bonds and they tossed in a series of land grants of government owned property. The Washington wags encouraged and enabled, but this breakthrough transportation system was built by private enterprise including the Central Pacific Railroad of California Company and the Union Pacific Railroad. The complete interstate highway system championed by President Dwight Eisenhower took a long time but as of 2010 it has 47,182 miles of roadway. The system is one of the world’s best and made it much easier to ship your goods or get the family to grandmother’s house. Perhaps you are of an age that remembers the advertising slogan “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”
For me this debate is not about the usual Liberal or Conservative posturing that feeds the Washington beltway machinery and talk-radio zealots. It goes to the very heart of what America is, was and can be. It may be my Libra nature, but I believe a fine balance between governments and private enterprise is the way forward. The men and women of 18th, 19th and early 20th Century United States of America were a very enterprising lot. Every farmer, accountant, blacksmith or merchant was classified as a business owner! They didn’t rely on the Federal government or any bureaucracy to make things happen by building communities and engaging in commerce. Their truth was that government was meant to be part of their support structure, not their rival or replacement.
There are a lot of people on Capitol Hill, in universities, and at unemployment offices across the land that either forgot or never knew how wealth is actually created. Without recommending a specific tome, searching online with the phrases wealth creation, capitalism and freedom will bring you a number of potential books on the subject. I sometimes wonder if retail politics in our country has a rule against telling voters the truth. Was Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” correct when he said to Tom Cruise’s character “You can’t handle the truth”?
It is my hope that at some time during the amazingly long campaign for the Presidency, the two finalists spend some time on encouraging the people who own, operate or work in businesses of all sizes, but especially the small and emerging enterprises. That is where the American dream began and should live today. Look at the Fortune 500 and you see large companies that took root as small businesses. The McDonald brothers had one hamburger stand in San Bernardino California. Henry Ford failed with the Detroit Automobile Company and the Henry Ford Company before raising less than $100,000 to try again and you know how that turned out.
Politicians who want to take credit for all good things without acknowledging the private-public partnership remind me of a wise story from the great motivational guru, Earl Nightingale. The story was that a clergyman rode past a well groomed farm with great fruit trees, lustrous growths and a beautiful homestead. He rode up to the farmer and said to him: “God has blessed you with a wonderful farm.” The farmer replied: “Yes it is a wonderful farm God has blessed me with, but you should have seen it when He had it all to Himself.”