Help Needed?

Does Uncle Sam owe entrepreneurs a helping hand, or should the government just get out of small business's way? Two experts face off.

Over the past two years, as the economy has gone south, businesspeople, politicians and economists have fiercely debated what the government should do to help small businesses--or if it should do anything at all. As fiscal policy director at the Cato Institute, the nation's leading free-market-oriented think tank in Washington, DC, Chris Edwards is one of the loudest advocates of limited government as the best solution to stimulate entrepreneurship. On the other side, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Small Business, is a passionate supporter of government programs to help entrepreneurs. Entrepreneur spoke with Edwards and Velazquez.

Broadly, what is your vision of government's role in fostering entrepreneurship?
Rep. Nydia Velazquez: The government should play a major role in encouraging entrepreneurs. Many entrepreneurs start off with a great idea but lack the know-how and connections to turn those ideas into legitimate, successful businesses. This is especially true of minority entrepreneurs and women who didn't grow up in a climate where capital was easy to obtain. The government has to level the playing field.

Chris Edwards: I disagree. The government has some role to play, but it should not be actively encouraging business. You see the slow economic growth in Europe and Japan over the past two decades--these are the problems you get when the government tries to pick winners. The government should serve as a lawmaker, a guarantor of the rule of law, but mostly it should stay out of the way of entrepreneurs, who are naturally dynamic.

What specific things could the government do to help entrepreneurs?
Edwards: The government could more strictly enforce fraud statutes and other laws. But the best thing it could do would be to push for more deregulation in industries, stop handing out corporate welfare, and make the tax and health-care and regulatory burdens on small businesses as light as on big business. Over the past decade, entrepreneurial booms have occurred when the government has broken up monopolies, stopped subsidizing industries and allowed entrepreneurs to flourish. There are still many industries that are dominated by a few big companies and could be privatized, and that would open the doors to small businesses. That would be the best long-term contribution our government could make, rather than trying to prop up small companies.

Which industries do you think should be privatized? And hasn't the California energy crisis taken the shine off deregulation?
Edwards: The California energy crisis is an example of half-deregulation. If they had totally deregulated the energy industry, we might not have had these problems. Other industries ripe for privatization--the postal system would be the first one. The U.S. Post Office has a monopoly on first-class letters and other mail. Break that up and there would be tons of opportunities for entrepreneurs in sending mail. I also think air traffic control is ripe for privatization. Canada has already begun privatizing air traffic control.

Congresswoman Velazquez, what is your view on what specific things the government could do?
Velazquez: The government should be a rule-enforcer, and we should work harder to ensure that small business does not face higher tax or health-care burdens. But just being a rule-enforcer does little for the small businesses that are just starting out.

We must be proactive. We need more programs that give entrepreneurs tools to get their ideas off the ground. We need agencies in the government to stop favoring large businesses when handing out federal contracts. And we need to make sure small businesses have less of a health-care burden, so they don't lose employees because they can't provide them with health insurance.

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This article was originally published in the April 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Help Needed?.

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