Hamilton and Non-Competes

My house is smitten by Hamilton. We listen to the music incessantly, my wife and I are both reading the Chernow biography, and the kids are fighting over who gets to use the third ticket to the Broadway show when we go to New York in the fall.

So in thinking about the recent conundrum facing the state legislature with respect to reforming non-competes in Massachusetts, you’ll have to forgive me if I contemplate: WWHD (What Would Hamilton Do)?

First, some background. Non-competes are odious devices used, often surreptitiously, by corporations to suppress workers from freely pursuing opportunities. Their use hinders innovation, as demonstrated by numerous academic studies — creating “career detours” and “skills atrophy” warns one MIT professor while the Kauffman Foundation notes non-competes represent an “obstacle to labor mobility”, which is so critical in a dynamic economy.After many years of studying the issue, the White House has decided to weigh in, with Vice President Biden warning that non-competes creates unnecessary friction in preventing a fair marketplace for labor (his “regular Joe” explanation of why non-competes are bad, by the way, is one of the clearest and most direct you’ll ever read).

In Massachusetts, many of us have been working to get rid of non-competes for a long, long time. I give Bijan Sabet credit for first sounding the clarion call on the issue almost a decade ago with his December 2007 post on the issue. Since then, policy makers, entrepreneurs, labor leaders and investors rallied together to educate legislatures on why they are so corrosive, negatively impacting camp counselors, sandwich shop makers and PhDs alike.

At first, this broad coalition of reformers were set on eliminating non-competes entirely. But in the last year, those of us who have been engaged in this issue have come around to compromise. In business, you get to make crisp decisions — ship a product, include or delete certain features, make hardchoices about raising capital and signing partnerships. But in politics, compromise is the lingua franca. Even the most ardent supporters of eliminating non-competes have begun to realize that pragmatic compromises are the only path to achieving real reform.

So when Massachusetts House Speaker DeLeo signaled his willingness to take on the issue of non-compete reform, many of us were heartened. The bill that the House unanimously approved is a good one but has a few flaws. On Thursday, the Senate addressed these flaws and passed a stronger reform bill and now the two bodies will convene to try to negotiate a compromise.

And here’s where my mind drifts to Hamilton. This orphaned, immigrant Founding Father was an ardent advocate for his beliefs and values. His intellectual battles with other Founding Fathers over the fundamental pieces of the very formation of America, particularly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, are legendary. Yet, in situation after situation, even hot-tempered Hamilton learned to compromise.

So let’s not allow this moment to pass and result in yet another legislative session consisting of debate and hearings but nothing to show for it. Inspired by Hamilton, as they take up the final details of the bill, I implore our state legislators: let’s not throw away our shot.

If you want to reach out to the legislators who are on the joint House-Senate committee to negotiate a compromise solution, email:

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