- Historic Sites
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Once counted in mere thousands, the men and women who staff the civilian agencies of the federal bureaucracy now number in the millions. Their total in 1974 is roughly equal to the population of Iowa and is greater than the population of any one of twenty-four other states or the District of Columbia. Almost 2.8 million strong, they often provide the only contact most of us have with federal power. We think them worthy of examination and offer here a brief look at the bureaucratic record in American life.
There are two striking facts about the American bureaucracy in 1974. The first is its vast size at all levels of government; the other is the seemingly low esteem in which it is held. Both provide considerable political mileage to a host of critics who variously contend that if the bureaucracy were to melt away overnight, we would all be the better for it. President Nixon, for example, has in the past consistently opposed gasoline rationing and new programs for health care and school financing on the ground that each would create “a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Yet even the briefest glance at the 1973 edition of that numerical wonderland The Statistical Abstract of the United States , prepared by the Bureau of the Census, seems to confirm that the nightmare is already here:
• At the present time 13,604,000 men and women, not counting military personnel, are government employees at the federal, state, and local levels. That is, in a work force of 88 million one of every 6.5 employees is on a government payroll. This compares with one in twenty-four in 1900, one in eighteen in 1930, and one in ten in 1950.
• State and local employment has more than doubled since 1950. The total then was 4.3 million employees; the last available total (fiscal 1972) is 10.8 million, more than 7 million of whom are in education—2.7 million as teachers, 4.3 million in administrative, auxiliary, and custodial services.
Seen from the perspective of the federal government alone, the statistics are no less dramatic and amply demonstrate the extraordinary expansion of federal services, especially in the last forty-five years.
• Roughly 78 per cent of all federal civilian jobs now in existence have been added since 1930. Approximately 30 per cent have been added since 1950.
• When George Washington took office in 1789, the nation’s population was estimated at 3.5 million; the bureaucracy numbered a mere 340. By 1974 the population had multiplied sixty times; the bureaucracy, 8,170 times.
• Between 1930 and 1950 the population increased by 23 per cent; the bureaucracy increased by 326 per cent.
• Between 1930 and 1974 the population grew by 71 per cent; the bureaucracy, by 462 per cent.
• At the present time there are 2,777,586 employees on the federal civilian payroll, or roughly one employee for every 77 persons in the population. This compares to one for every 375 in 1900 and one for 204 in 1930.
• Surprisingly, the ratio of federal employees to population in 1974 is about the same as in 1950, because the bureaucratic growth of 41 per cent was matched by a population increase of 39 per cent.
• The federal budget for the first two years of government, beginning in 1789, was $4.3 million, at a per capita cost of only $1.22. By 1930, when the budget reached $3.5 billion, the per capita cost was $28. In 1950 budget expenditures totalled $39 billion, at a per capita cost of $260.
• The proposed budget for fiscal 1975 is $304 billion, a figure roughly 8,950 times greater than the two-year budget for 1789-91. The per capita cost is approximately $1,500.
What these figures represent, of course, is merely the tip of the statistical iceberg; and what they mean is open to considerable political argument. But this much is beyond dispute: the federal bureaucracy now forms a fourth branch of government that is potentially as powerful as the Presidency, the Congress, or the courts. It is large, it is expensive, and it is not likely to fade away soon. Unquestionably it has altered the nature of government in America.
But how and to what extent remains elusive because the bureaucracy is perhaps the least understood element in our political system. Despite its bulk it is largely invisible, ignored by historians and journalists alike. Its activities go unreported, and what passes for public information about it is often little more than a random mix of rumor, myth, and half-truths. As a result the bureaucracy is still identified in stereotyped terms as a monolithic, rigid institution staffed by arrogant, incompetent timeservers who are worthy only of derision and contempt. Thus Alabama Governor George Wallace’s blunt reference to “pointyheaded bureaucrats.” Or as The American Heritage Dictionary notes, “In American usage, bureaucrat is almost invariably derogatory unless the context establishes otherwise.”