The maker movement is transforming the American economic landscape. The number of people who make a self-employed living making stuff is still small — almost imperceptible in a U.S. labor market of 160 million — but it is growing.
In 2014 more than 350,000 manufacturing establishments in the U.S. had no employee other than the owner, up almost 17% over ten years, according to Commerce Department data reported by the Wall Street Journal. By comparison, the 293,000 establishments with employees had experienced a 12% decline in number over the same period. Overall, there are roughly 12 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
The boom in self-employed manufacturing is most pronounced in the “food” category, but also notable in chemicals (including soaps and perfumes), transportation, leather, and beverages & tobacco.
I expect the movement to gain momentum as the revolt against mass, industrial-era standardization gives way to mass customization. Technologies such as Computer Aided Design and 3-D printers continue to gain in capability and come down in price, making them available to almost anyone. Many colleges have 3-D printers on campuses, and students are learning how to use them. Meanwhile, just as the Miller-Budweiser beer duopoly has given way to the craft beer revolution — the biggest advertising budgets in the country could not halt that consumer trend — we are seeing the revival of artisinal foods, beverages, and craft products.
The proliferation of self-employed, small-scale manufacturers is part of a larger trend toward the so-called “gig” economy. So far, the needs and aspirations of makers, hackers, craftsmen and free-lancers have gone mostly unrecognized by the political establishment. These self-employed workers are even more politically invisible than small business. They are unorganized politically. They don’t have trade associations, they don’t hire lobbyists, and they don’t donate money to politicians. Indeed, the only politician I can think of who takes them seriously is Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. While the senator has performed a valuable service in highlighting the group and its unique needs, his interest in the topic does not appear to be widely shared, and he can cite few tangible accomplishments yet.
Making a living as a free-lance writer and blog publisher for the past 14 years, I feel a strong affinity for this group. In Virginia, there are hundreds of thousands of us. And as consumer tastes continue to shift from standardized products and services to personalized products and services — our numbers will grow.
We are the petite bourgeoisie. We are noted for our stubborn independence and our ornery attitude toward our “betters” who would tell us what to do. In my view (which, I concede, may not be universally shared), we don’t seek special treatment. We don’t want subsidies, tax breaks or special privileges. We just want a level playing field.
The most important legislative priority for self-employed workers is to gain more control over our health care insurance and retirement plans. Our health insurance should enjoy the same tax status as health plans provided by corporations and other major employers. Our pension vehicles should be portable as we move back and forth between conventional employment and self employment. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to keep a lid on taxes.
As I scan the political economy of Virginia, I don’t see anyone (other than Warner) representing the interests of the self-employed. Neither Democrats nor Republicans, beholden as they are to established corporate and bureaucratic interests, provide a natural home for us.
The Libertarian Party could become that home if it moved beyond articulating abstract principles to applying those principles to real-world problems. Indeed, if the Libertarian Party has a natural constituency, it would be the free-lancers and small businesses whose interests are routinely subordinated to those of better organized, more vocal groups who turn to the government for everything. As Libertarians run for office, they would do well to cultivate the large and growing ranks of the self-employed.