Rarely do I snag anything from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal as an entree into an essay on Adam Smith, Esq. (not because there’s anything the least wrong with them, but because I figure you’ve probably already seen it), but rules are made to have exceptions, so today I invite your attention to The Myth of Main Street, published in print yesterday in The Times’ “Sunday Review” opinion section. The author is one Louis Hyman (a name new to me), listed as an “economic historian”—an excellent start—and director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at the ILR School at Cornell.
What is “the myth of Main Street?” In Mr. Hyman’s recounting:
Main Street is a place but it is also an idea. It’s small-town retail. It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life. It’s everything, in short, that seems threatened by global capitalism and cosmopolitan elites in big cities and fancy suburbs.
Mr. Hyman’s hook for his article is obviously—he says so—President Trump’s refrain of “making America great again,” which can without fear of contradiction be deemed to embrace “making Main Street great again.” (Yesterday, today, and always, ASE is resolutely nonpartisan and apolitical; my, and Mr. Hyman’s, recitation of our President’s slogan is fact not opinion, description not critique, and positive not normative economics.)
But is our idealized view of Main Street even feasible any more? Can we go back to a “great” Main Street again?
Certainly Americans have embraced this sentiment since the founding of the republic—it goes back to the agrarian Jeffersonians vs. the urban Hamiltonians (three guesses who my preferred Founding Father is on that score)—and has a durable pedigree running more or less on through Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, the widespread enactment of “fair trade” laws in the 1930’s (prohibiting retailers from discounting products and therefore stymieing the “low price” appeal of chain stores like A&P and Woolworth’s).