Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Small towns, big government

Jerry Stratton, September 12, 2018

Baroque Obama: Let them eat cities

Last week’s post reminded me about something I’ve been wanting to say about dying small towns. Every once in a while the argument comes up that if there are no jobs in your town, you should move to where there are jobs. And if your small town has no jobs, then it should die.

This is grossly hypocritical when it comes from modern pundits and politicians. It is a tacit acceptance of big, intrusive government. It is government regulations that mean fewer and fewer jobs in small towns. It is government mandates that make it deadly for businesses to hire people nearby even though businesses would by far prefer nearer workers to overseas workers. The reason small towns increasingly resemble inner cities is because the same problem affects both: an inability to overcome the barriers that Washington (and cities run by Democrats) put up against starting and running small businesses. Small towns were more resilient because they were further from the nutty regulations of Democrat-run cities, but the way federal regulations force small-town businesses to close is the same as how they forced inner-city businesses to close.

It is critical to realize that this affects all small businesses, not just small businesses in small towns and dangerous neighborhoods. The longer the problem goes on, the closer we get to the kind of science fiction dystopia of big-business arcologies and monolithic multinationals.

The more expensive and difficult we make it to start a business, the more this becomes only feasible in cities—and only for those with the resources to start big. The more expensive and difficult it is to start a business, the more customers you need to make it profitable, and the more bureaucracy navigators you need to literally keep yourself out of jail. Both customers and extraneous expertise are more common in cities than out of them.

People should not have to leave their home towns to start businesses that create jobs. But if they want to keep from breaking the complex laws that surround running a business, they need to hire tax experts, legal experts, human resource experts, and health coverage experts. And probably more experts I'm not even thinking of.

The more expensive it is to comply with tax law and business law, the more immediate customers you need to make a profit. That means, for most businesses, you can't start in a place where there are fewer customers, such as a small town—or an inner city. People don’t generally travel to inner city businesses unless they live in that neighborhood, or after the inner city has been transformed into a destination by successful small businesses. Catch-22.

Small towns should not have to die. The administrative state that keeps small businesses from succeeding in small towns should die.

I recently read Richard Russo's Empire Falls, which is what originally got me thinking about this. Just about every character in the book had dreams of starting a business. Every one of those businesses would have had customers and would have created jobs.

But every business already running in that fallen town was breaking so many laws that the first time they angered someone in power a hive of government bureaucrats swarmed over them and put them out of business.1

Conservatives who argue that people should just move out of their home town are accepting that we will never relieve the massive regulatory burden that keeps small towns jobless. That's either very unconservative or very defeatist.

Leftists who argue that people should just move out of small towns are prioritizing regulations over people. That's very leftist, but it's also disingenuous. They’ve created a regulatory environment that kills jobs in small towns—and poorer city neighborhoods—and then blame the residents in those areas for staying in an area that has no jobs.

The left likes to divert the blame for job loss and business failure from their policies to globalization and technological progress.2 But the great strides we've made technologically and the shrinking of the world has made it easier, not harder, to run businesses from homes in small towns. Everyone has far greater resources at their disposal for starting an online store and for acquiring the materials necessary to build. Everyone has far greater resources for reaching global customers once they make a name for themselves, and stabilize their business, locally.

Many small-town businesses don’t even realize they’re a business until after they’re a business. The home baker who is only beginning to realize that they make more money at their yard sales on their baked goods than on their yard sale items; the quilter or dressmaker who is only beginning to realize that they are making more blankets or more dresses for friends of friends, for money, than they are for family.3

What's made it harder is big, progressive, government adding more bureaucratic hassles to starting a business, more incomprehensible paperwork to starting a business. And the regressive support systems built around those requirements, because they are mandated by government, don't need to take advantage of technological progress.4 They don’t have to go to you. You have to go to them, or risk fines and prison.

They are killing the small-town businesses that ought to be thriving in our modern, decentralized, global economy. Claiming that we ought to help failing communities die, when they’re dying from big government, is a lot like saying that we ought to help people in pain die, when we’re denying them effective pain medication.5

It is hypocrisy masquerading as compassion. And ignoring that big government caused the problem only makes it easier for big-government advocates to propose solutions that double down on the problem, making government even more intrusive, more involved in small-town affairs rather than just getting out of their way.

In response to How the left bribes big business: There’s a reason giant corporations and the biggest conglomerates are almost all donors to Democrats if they prefer one party over another. The left’s policies kill their upstart competitors. Big government hurts small businesses far more than it hurts big businesses.

  1. Because it's a novel, Russo was able to gloss over the impossibility of overcoming that swarm in order to give his book a moderately happy ending. Think about it, if you've read the book: Russo goes into great detail about the massive amounts—in 1999 dollars—it would take to comply with the laws. But he goes into no detail about how in the world she came up with that money.

  2. “Progressive” is just a name they use to hide their hatred of progress. It is no coincidence that it is our most Democrat-controlled cities that are trying to kill ride-sharing and home-sharing services, in favor of bigger, established taxi and hotel services.

  3. And every one of these is probably breaking some statewide or federal law.

  4. If you haven’t tried to start a business, think about how poorly the DMV and even the Post Office take advantage of modern technology. The DMV barely does appointments, and that’s it; and the USPS, which would be at the forefront of modern technology if it had to compete, is only now beginning to let us know when packages are going to arrive—and mostly failing.

  5. Or removing the reward motive from health research that might find cures, or denying experimental treatment that might cure them now. Worse than that, because the experimental treatment might fail, but we know that when we get out of the way of people who want to create businesses, they will create businesses.