In this essay we will consider an interesting social phenomenon in the United States whereby a very large number of small businesses across a variety of sectors are owned by first generation immigrants.
If you do not know what I mean, let me posit a few examples that are common, at least in the Midwest where I live. Hotels and motels are often owned by Indians. Diners are frequently under the ownership of eastern European families. Ownership of gas stations, party stores, and liquor stores are dominated by Arabs, either Muslim or Chaldean Christian. Nail salons are run by Asians. Other examples could be furnished from other regions of the United States.
Of course, these examples are not universal; there are many party stores that are not owned by Arabic speaking folk, of course. However, if these observations are not universally applicable, neither are they mere stereotypes without objective basis. There definitely is a preponderance of ownership in certain businesses among certain groups of foreigners, a kind of “ethnic concentration” in given professions.
Why is ownership of small business by immigrants such a common trend in the United States? (Don’t worry; this is not going to turn into a nationalist screed against immigrants or immigrant ownership.) I am more interested in the social question of why this pattern of ownership exists in the U.S. After all, looking at the question quantitatively, it does not make sense. On paper, a working-class immigrant should be the least likely individual to own a business. The obstacles are legion: language barriers, unfamiliarity with the complex network of local, state, and federal regulations, usually no credit or business history within the country, limited access to capital, etc. And yet there is a preponderance of ownership by these very individuals.
What explains this pattern of ownership? I think the crux of the issue is that these immigrants often come from countries where ownership of property is more distributed, and thus the expectation and desireof ownership is more universal. Countries like Albania, Iraq, and Cambodia do not have the large concentrations of commercial ownership that have become so regrettably common in the capitalist west. This is because they still have very traditional economies in many respects. Ownership of property is still distributed amongst a great many small shop owners, artisans, and local producers.
For example, I recently met a Vietnamese woman who showed me some pictures of a clothing store her family owned in Vietnam. The family lived in a two-story home on the main street of a medium sized town. Their shop was on the lower floor; the business opened up out into the street. The family lived on the upper floor. She told me that everybody in the town owned a shop of some sort: flowers, textiles, baked goods, vegetables, electronics, whatever. Each family had its own niche and its own shop. She lived on a street that was a kind of ‘textile row’ where many families had clothing stores clustered together.
The fact is, in smaller countries that do not have historic ties to western style capitalism, commercial centralization has not yet taken hold. Wal-Mart has not yet displaced the plethora of local grocers and retailers; hence property is still much more distributed, and thus the fact and ideal of ownership are more common. In Vietnam, it is simply assumed that each family will have a family business. Common people are used to the idea of ownership. They aspire for it. They work towards it. Thus, when they get to the United States, they come here with the mindset of ownership.
Contrast this with the mood of most Americans. How many American high school seniors say “When I grow up, I want to own a gas station”? When was the last time an industrious young American girl said “I want to operate a textile production operation out of my basement”? What American parents proudly announce at the dinner party that their son wants to run a motel? How many high school guidance counselors tell their student, “Jimmy, I think you should consider starting a party store”? What starry-eyed American youth dreams of one day managing a breakfast diner?
Of course, we know this simply doesn’t happen a lot. But why not? If Americans do not tend to aspire to ownership, what do they aspire to? The sad thing is that the capitalist mentality has conditioned Americans to aspire, not to ownership, but to secure positions in middle management—place holders in the bureaucracy. The focus of American professional development is not ownership, but rather developing the right “skill sets” that will make one “marketable” to a successful company. Success is not bound up with ownership, but with tying oneself to the success of a much bigger entity. Americans simply do not aspire to personal ownership; they prefer to find secure, salaried positions under the aegis of someone else’s ownership. It’s not a problem so much with material circumstances as much as with our preferences and desires.
This reflects a point made by Hilaire Belloc, that what is required is not necessarily a new economic program as much as a new way of thinking a “new mood”:
The restoration of Property must essentially be the product of a new mood, not a new scheme. It must grow from seed planted in the breast. It is too late to reinfuse it by design, and our efforts must everywhere be particular, local, and, in its origins at least, small.1
One other point: Notice that in the example of immigrant owned businesses, ownership is vested not in the individual so much as the family. The Chaldean who owns the party store runs it with his brothers and their children, as does the Albanian who owns the breakfast diner. The Vietnamese woman I mentioned who worked in a clothing shop out of her house did so with her family. Her father, mother, and siblings all worked together in what was essentially an exercise of familial ownership.
Besides being the heart of the Distributist vision—the family as the primary economic unit—familial ownership is the most basic sort of cooperative organization, whereby the resources of individuals are pooled together to bring forth an outcome much greater than what any individual could accomplish alone. This cooperative principle is at the heart of the Distributist ideal. It constitutes the functional principle of what makes Distributist ventures economically viable.
Are non-western economies like those found in Iraq, Cambodia, or Vietnam models of Distributist economies? Certainly not. A proposal to restructure the American economy in the image of that of Albania would rightfully be derided. These countries all have many serious problems, politically, culturally, and economically. That’s the whole reason many of them wish to emigrate to the West.
What is praiseworthy is not the material conditions or politics in these other countries, but the ownership mentality that a general distribution of ownership engenders. And this has to do not with the corrupt political systems that usually exist in such places; more often than not, it is due to the hardy remnants of traditional economies that have endured in spite of the destructive, imbecilic administration of tin-pot dictatorships.
Immigrant owned businesses in the United States exemplify what is possible for the common man when the right technological, educational, and financial resources and made available to people with an ownership mentality. Ultimately, for ownership to be more common, our mentality needs to change. We need to break out of the capitalist-induced mental lethargy that has our brightest minds aspiring to nothing more than cozy middle management and recapture an aspiration towards ownership.