The small business myth

BOOK REVIEW

Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA, Author: Benjamin C Waterhouse.
The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States, Author: Benjamin C Waterhouse.

By Benjamin C Waterhouse – Although love for small business may seem like a timeless feature of capitalism, the widespread belief that small entrepreneurs hold the keys to economic revival is relatively recent.

A key moment in the modern myth-making around small business came in 1978. That’s when MIT economist David Birch published claims – which he repeated in testimony before Congress – that small firms had accounted for 80 per cent of all new employment opportunities between 1968 and 1976. Critics quickly pointed out that Birch’s findings were quite wrong, largely because he defined firm size according to how many employees worked in a given location (like a branch office, factory, or store), not how many the firm employed altogether. In fact, most job creation, in the 1970s and today, comes from a small number of very fast-growing firms, while most small firms either fail (killing jobs) or remain small.

Birch later admitted that the 80 per cent figure was a ‘silly number’, but the claims took firm root in popular mythology and political rhetoric by the 1980s.

Historically, however, ‘small business’ did not exist in any meaningful sense until the advent of ‘Big Business’ in the late 19th century. Before the emergence of large, vertically integrated, and diversified corporations, ‘small business’ was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and no one spoke on its behalf. more>

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