This past week was American Dream Week at the White House. Insofar as theme weeks have any value, this is a fine theme. Worries about the disappearance of the American Dream helped elect President Trump.
A central quality of the American Dream is the freedom to strike out on your own, independent from your boss, and make your own business. The administration chose to emphasize that aspiration in the most unfortunate way, which is encapsulated in the headline "Helping Entrepreneurs Achieve the American Dream of Business Ownership," on a Commerce Department blog post on Wednesday.
Commerce was touting a federal subsidy, the "revolving loan program" run by a corporate welfare agency called the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The EDA shouldn't exist, and President Trump's White House knows this. The budget released in May called for abolishing the agency as wasteful and duplicative.
Whatever the Commerce Department's bloggers may believe, the American Dream is not a dream of dependence on government.
Commerce highlighted an organic ice cream maker who expanded with taxpayer-backed financing from EDA and then dutifully commented for the government bloggers about how appreciative she was of Uncle Sam's generosity.
This Life of Julia for Mom & Pop is not something the administration should foster. The quickest way to expand the swamp is to make more businesses dependent on government, thus needful of lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants. The surest strategy for sapping entrepreneurial spirit is holding up the federal government as the supporter and nurturer of industry. The most effective way to crowd out competition and stultify innovation is for government to pick winners and losers, even when the winners are as sympathetic as small-time makers of organic ice cream.
If the White House wants to reinvigorate the American Dream it should start by getting government less involved in business, not more. The bigger the government, the more the playing field is tilted to the big guys, who can more easily afford to comply with regulations, navigate the complex tax code, hire former congressmen as lobbyists, and hustle for bailouts and handouts.
As Trump cheers the stock market hitting record highs, powered by the growth of corporate behemoths such as Apple, new business formation is in decline. Trump's mission of deregulation and tax reform could reverse that baneful trend and welcome many new entrepreneurs off the sidelines.
The most important work to unshackle the American Dream will be done on the state and local level. Occupational licensing effectively requires people to get a permission slip to engage in commerce. This protects existing businesses from competition and often has nothing to do with consumer protection.
A commercial pilot should be rigorously licensed and tested, but the regulation of hair-braiding is ridiculous and a shameful barrier to entry into business. Trump should use his bully pulpit to draw attention to these anticompetitive regulations and press state legislators to scrap them.
Republicans sometimes fall into the error of holding up only the Bill Gateses and Mark Zuckerbergs as model entrepreneurs. They assume every small business wants to be a big business or at least should want that. But a healthy economy will have businesses both small and big and businessmen and businesswomen with visions both grand and humble.
The American Dream includes those who dream of taking over or disrupting a market, but it's just as much about those who want to run grandpa's corner store and hand it down to the next generation.
The American Dream is a worthy topic for the White House. We hope the Trump administration realizes that its role in aiding the American Dream mostly involves getting out of the way.