It's time for America's Main Street to go back to work

Jim Blasingame

America’s small business sector is currently on an emotional roller coaster. Let me tell you a story about how far back we have to go – over 240 years – to find comparable unprecedented circumstances imposing similar anxiety on Main Street. 

During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), colonial business owners, who were also American Patriots, were up against that conflict’s ebb and flow as it overlaid their marketplace. In any given month, the Continental Army would be dominant in a region, allowing the Patriot’s business to operate with its owner’s politics on display. But when the British later occupied that region, patrolling Redcoats would create a different atmosphere, as the King claimed military and political dominance. 

During that unprecedented period, the life of any Patriot entrepreneur became extremely complicated. As they attempted to claim liberty, they simultaneously had to balance the risks of their business with a very real threat to their lives and beloved families. And as they contemplated these factors, surely they had to allow for the possibility that the revolution might fail. On the subject of risk management – more safety or more liberty – Franklin offered this immortal truth: “Those who trade liberty for safety deserve neither.”

Just as our Patriot entrepreneur forebears anxiously managed the personal and financial risk imposed by a determined occupying force, contemporary stewards of Main Street are today faced with managing a comparable risk scenario: essentially an occupying force in the form of a virus-turned-pandemic-turned-economic-collapse, plus the unprecedented political response to an unprecedented crisis. 

Again, just like those revolutionaries, today three of our most precious possessions are in jeopardy as they sit on our risk-balancing scales:

  • Our health – and life – and that of our loved ones.
  • Our financial estate, including the future of our business, into which we’ve poured more sweat and investment than we could have imagined the day we first opened. 
  • Our liberty. 

For a small business owner, these mutually inclusive possessions weave an ultra-fine, almost imperceptible seam between each other. Working backward, without America’s unique form of liberty – rule of law, pursuit of happiness, sans kings – there is no business. And without our business, the health and well-being of our family are, well … you can fill in the blank. 

Freedom is from God. Liberty is an earthly, analog contract we give to each other – both explicit and implicit. America has flourished because of the secular, red-letter ideals of liberty, explicit in the U.S. Constitution, codified by blood and promulgated by over two centuries of devotion. 

Generations of small business owners have carved implicit liberty – from our venerable Bill of Rights – into the right to open their businesses. Even during a pandemic. But in the spirit of extending implicit liberty to others, this year millions of Main Street business owners have complied with recommendations of political authorities to help flatten the curve of this pandemic. Even when those “orders” were as quasi-constitutional as they were financially disastrous. 

With any process, there’s a beginning, a mid-point, and an end. As we surely find ourselves in the middle of this pandemic process, small business stakeholders are beginning to view more threats to those three precious possessions coming from the political response to the pandemic than from the disease. 

Make no mistake – everyone understands that coronavirus is one mean organism, and COVID-19 is a deadly disease. But like no big business CEO, Main Street chief executives manage risk almost at the molecular level – they know its gritty texture and subtle scent. It’s time to let us get back to managing our risk, which we’re actually pretty good at.

Even with $Billions of government assistance, we’re still losing thousands of small businesses every day, many of which will never reopen. Alas, we won’t be able to calculate the extreme cost to these heroes for some time, but we know the number will be enormous and, sadly for many, prohibitive. If you remember nothing else from me, remember this: When a small business collapses, a family collapses.

Consequently, it’s time to tell presumptuous politicians we need a day/date – sooner than later – when businesses won’t be hassled by opening their doors, and customers won’t feel threatened to come in. Because as Main Street owners continue to compare COVID-19 health risks to the economic damage the political response has caused their businesses, more and more are just going to call that day/date themselves. Sooner than later. And that might look like a revolution.

Very much like our Patriot forebears, we won’t think of it as civil disobedience, because in the spirit of liberty we’ve allowed authorities to impinge on our liberty – up to now. We’ll just think of our next move as balancing another risk while we pursue our lives and liberty, just as we’ve managed dozens of other business-eating risks, on any given day, every day that we unlock our doors. 

The world is a dangerous place. Most people were unaware – and no businesses were closed –when two years ago, 68,000 Americans died from the common flu. COVID-19 is the newest risk we now have to manage as we return to pursuing our lives and work. And we shouldn’t be surprised if COVID-21 kills thousands of Americans next year. When that happens, will we shut down the economy again? 

Coronavirus will be with us for a long time. We can’t out-social-distance it forever and we can’t wait on a vaccine. It’s time to re-open the economy.

Write this on a rock … To paraphrase Moses in his plea to Pharaoh, let our people go back to work. Because we know the way to the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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