Two Cheers for Small Business
By Alberto Mingardi
We live in societies where we see a “near-universal appreciation for the aesthetic benefits of a thriving small business community,” but almost no empathy for small business owners. This is an interesting point made by Will Collins in an article published by The American Conservative and that makes use of James C. Scott’s work.
Collins is thinking of the recent riots in the US which, as you would expect from riots, resulted in physical damages and looting at the expense of restaurants and shops. If many left-leaning commentators typically express enthusiasm for “neighborhood restaurants, locally-sourced produce, and independent bookstores”, “in the wake of the riots, however, condemnations of looting and arson have been strangely muted”.
Though you may detect in the article a hint of nostalgia for a world of smaller shops and a certain antipathy towards big retailers, I think Collins has a point in highlighting that our societies tend to foster “a culture inimical to the character of the independent business owner.” The US is, or at least used to be, different the most European states in that regard, but certainly on my side of the pond there was a good deal of antipathy for shopkeepers. I was always struck by how it was common to refer to Margaret Thatcher with a certain disdain as “the daughter of a grocer”. You would expect that even people who deeply disagree with her would celebrate the upward social mobility and the achievement of somebody who comes out of a “petty bourgeois” environment. Not quite. The petty bourgeoisie is considered rather crass and vulgar, petty, a collection of prudes. The pursuit of money, an utter necessity for somebody who lives out of the oranges or the shirts she manages to sell, is seen as incompatible with higher pursuits.
The great enemy of small business is red tape. It seems to me that those having a strong “appreciation for the aesthetic benefits of a thriving small business community” tend to think of it as a fish tank , which shall be preserved as it is, with exactly those fishes it came with. They take a static view of their community and care about it not changing. They are not sympathetic, instead, with people who are trying to set up a small firm or shop, that is: with more people trying to find meaning in the “zone of personal autonomy” that their shop comes to represent.
Collins also makes a point many are making about the future of cities should Internet commerce take over the world. Will neighbourhoods simply be empty? As “small businesses help keep neighborhoods safe by attracting foot traffic and providing “eyes on the street” to informally monitor public spaces”, are we going to see crime spiking, as shops close? I tend to believe shops will be more resilient than people think. For one thing, somebody may be willing to buy an iPod online, but not necessarily her apparel or her medicines. Niche and highly specialised activities can benefit from personal contacts and handshakes (whenever we’ll go back to shaking hands). But also, for example, immigrants may prefer to go to small groceries run by people in their own community. Foodshops and small restaurants and takeaways can take over from shops that cannot compete with online retail. We will see. Cities are so central in our civilisation because, clearly, they are good at adapting to changing human needs. Still, the pandemic drove many to predict the end of the office as we know it, and thus to people preferring to live in suburban areas, fearing new pandemics and the consequent lockdowns, instead of in city centres. We will see. One interesting feature of crises like Covid19 is that they leave our imagination unbridled, but also, in the midst of an emergency, my impression is that we tend to overestimate changes that will be permanent and underestimate changes that will be transient.