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'No, You Didn't Build Your Business Alone'

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Here we go again.

Presidential campaign time means it's silly season when it comes to small-business issues. Remember Joe the Plumber?

The latest fracas revolves around President Barack Obama's comments on what individuals owe society for their success: "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own … Somebody helped to create this great American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

The Romney campaign seized on those last words, portraying them as an attack on small-business.

Much of this is nonsense, but there is an argument about how much business success depends on society vs. individual effort.

Do entrepreneurs make it because of our personal hard work, initiative, risk-taking? Of course.

I'm a small-business owner. Not only have I had to work hard, but I've also risked everything. I've had to use all my savings, pledge my home, pay my staff before I pay myself.

Most people don't take those kinds of risks. Entrepreneurs do.

Do we make it alone? Of course not.

Not only do we need our employees to be successful, and our friends and family for support (often financial), but we also depend on society and — gasp — the government.

In fact, business gets so much from the government, it's like air. We don't notice it, but we couldn't survive without it.

Let's look at just three benefits we take for granted that business gets from government:

1. Limited liability. This gift is so big, so fundamental, that corporations wouldn't exist without it.

Limited liability shelters business owners and stockholders from personal liability for the debts and transgressions of their companies.

If you as an individual take a loan from a bank, sign a lease or inflict damage, you're financially responsible. All your property is at risk. Wages can be garnished.

If a corporation takes a loan, signs a lease, inflicts damage, with some exceptions, the financial responsibility stops at the corporation's doorstep. If the company closes shop, the debt goes away.

Imagine what it would mean if corporations didn't have limited liability -- if a company's owners, including stockholders, were personally liable for company debts. No one would buy stock or invest in small businesses.

There's no reason corporation owners shouldn't be responsible for corporation debts, but generally they're not.

Many small-business owners must guarantee loans personally, even if they incorporate. But they're still shielded from much liability.

If you're a business owner who thinks you get nothing from the government, try giving up the gift of limited liability.

2. Judicial system. Right after the Soviet Union fell, a venture capitalist friend of mine went to Eastern Europe to invest in new companies. She soon left.

Why? A judicial system wasn't in place to enforce private contracts. So you couldn't build businesses.

You never think about it -- like air, right? -- but when you enter into a contract with a customer or supplier, you expect the terms of the agreement to be followed.

You could do business with just a handshake, but you depend on the safety of knowing that a system backs you up if you need it. Sure, lawyers cost money and courts are slow, but in the worst case, you've got a judicial system, a government, for support.

3. Tax deductions. Forget about creative tax advantages that allow hedge-fund managers to pay little or no tax. Let's even forget that money earned from stock incurs lower tax rates than money earned working for a company to help create the value of the stock.

Let's just look at the fact that businesses can deduct expenses denied to individuals.

A corporation can deduct the cost of a van to deliver goods. The van's driver can't deduct the car he drives to work, yet that's a legitimate expense he incurs to create income for himself.

Businesses can deduct almost every expense and individuals almost none.

Over and over again, government grants businesses benefits denied to individuals. So if you have a successful company, yes, you built it.

But you didn't build it alone.

Rhonda Abrams writes the Strategies column for USAToday.

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