Businessmen and Entrepreneurs

A confession: I have not actually been listening to the GOP convention live. And I won’t be listening to the Democrat convention either. I am not a partisan politics junkie.

So I get all my stuff second hand, usually filtered through NPR (and knowing that NPR is as annoying as Harry Shearer’s “Continental Public Radio” parodies) or, increasingly from antiwar.com, The American Conservative, and occasionally salon.com (which can be more annoying and self-righteous, though not quite as vacuous, than even NPR). Which leaves me commenting on comments — blogging on blogs. And I always feel slightly fraudulent when I do that.

But *sigh*, today I cannot help myself. Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative was critical of what he saw as the content of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

And this is true. In the way I think Ryan means it — probably in the Randian, lone über-hero against the mediocre world of parasites — your typical laborer is most definitely not a entrepreneur. Samuel Goldman, in his comments on Galupo’s posting (I am blogging about someone’s comment on a blog — what have I come to?), notes that Republicans no longer have room in their understanding of the American dream for “those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement” so that they “can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort.”

But I also remember reading this from the acceptance speech from the 1896 Democrat convention given by party nominee William Jennings Bryan:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Part of me finds little difference between Galupo’s estimation of Ryan thought and Bryan’s words. What, after all, is the difference between and “entrepreneur” and a “businessman”?
Except there is a great deal of difference here. Bryan is defending the dignity of labor — something I’m not sure Democrat or Republican elites know how to really do anymore. It’s certainly nothing either party would stoop to doing at this point. The man who works only with his muscles is still doing business — leasing his labor to someone who can pay. He still has property he trades on the open market, and deserves as much dignity and respect as any speculator or financier. Bryan is also defending the dignity of smallness in the face of bigness. 
Also, the sense I have is that missing from the Randian admiration of the heroic businessman is context. The reality is, most entrepreneurialism takes places within social networks, in communities, and does so in ways that makes sense to entrepreneur, investor and customer alike. And that seeks to minimize risk. (Because most entrepreneurs cannot get government to hedge risk and cover losses the way investment bankers have.) Entrepreneurialism almost entirely takes place within a web of cooperation and within a community. Bryan’s speech understands that. In effect, Bryan is defending a “property right” where those who most staunchly defended private property saw none to begin with. (It has always been interesting to me that labor is only viewed as property once it is paid for, and then it becomes the property of the one buying it, never the one selling it. I think our default moral model for employment is slavery.)
I suspect if pushed on the matter, Ryan would clearly get that. But the GOP has so bought into the language of heroic individuals — especially heroic capitalists battling the evil forces of predatory, regulatory government — that attempting to acknowledge the social grounding of entrepreneurialism is a form of socialism. Or perhaps even communism. Who ends up buying the goods and services provided by the heroic individual capitalist is then something of a mystery.