The debate over the size of government has been one the major defining issues of our time, with Republicans continuing to call for dramatic cuts in most federal programs. But in this argument over big government, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the question of why government has grown so large in the U.S. in the first place. Why do we have big government? The answer may surprise some Americans.
There are two main theories. Most Republicans argue that it is in government's nature to grow continuously and uncontrollably -- like some kind of institutional cancer. They see politicians and bureaucrats as having a strong self-interest to increase their own power, and the best way to do that is to increase the size and scope of government programs. So for conservatives, this perpetual public sector growth is illegitimate and needs to be drastically reined in.
Trouble is, this theory does not correspond to what we know about the growth of the federal government. A chronicle of government growth over the last 100 years shows that most of the increase in federal programs took place in only two decades: the 1930s and the 1960s. And the last 40 years have seen little significant growth in our national government. In 1970, 2.9 million civilians worked for the federal government; in 2008, that figure was 2.8 million. In 1970, federal bureaucrats made up 3.8 percent of total U.S. workers, while in 2008 they made up a mere 1.9 percent. Hardly evidence of continuous or uncontrollable growth.
The other theory of the cause of big government is much more consistent with the history of the federal government. In this view, we have come to have big government largely because this is what the American public has demanded. Consider this: the two periods that account for most of the growth in federal programs -- the 1930s and 1960s -- were also times of extraordinary political unrest and citizen activism. People wanted big new government programs to deal with the pressing issues of those times.
In the '30s, Americans wanted the government to address the widespread economic suffering, and we ended up with programs like Social Security, welfare, bank regulation, etc. The '60s saw significant political movements demanding government action to address environmental pollution, racial discrimination, workplace and consumer safety, poverty, and lack of health care for the elderly.
In other words, big government is not something that has been forced on Americans by liberal elitists and power-hungry bureaucrats. We have it because we ourselves have demanded big government to deal with the many big problems we have faced in our society. We have called for big government programs when it has been obvious that there are serious problems that cannot be solved through individual effort or by the natural workings of the free market.
And by and large, most Americans continue to support these big government programs. Polls consistently show that between 60 and 70 percent of Americans want to see increased federal government activity around issues of the environment, education, crime, Social Security, and health care. Importantly, such large majorities supporting big government programs cannot simply be made up of liberals; they must also include a lot of moderates and conservatives as well.
So when it comes to the issue of big government, it may actually be the Republicans who are the elitists -- who are trying to impose their view of minimal government on a public that has demanded and still supports most big government programs. Democratic candidates in the upcoming elections would do well to make that one of their campaign messages.
Douglas J. Amy is Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College and author of Government is Good: An Unapologetic Defense of a Vital Institution.