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What Made The Government Grow
…and grow, and grow, from almost no employees to three million. Don’t blame the welfare state, or the military; the truth is much more interesting.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
The tradition of distrusting government—almost any government—has such deep roots in the American past that a newcomer could justifiably think of the United States as a nation of a quarter of a billion near-anarchists. After all, it was Tom Paine, a major voice of the American Revolution, who declared that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Is Paine too radical for you?
The tradition of distrusting government—almost any government—has such deep roots in the American past that a newcomer could justifiably think of the United States as a nation of a quarter of a billion near-anarchists. After all, it was Tom Paine, a major voice of the American Revolution, who declared that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Is Paine too radical for you? Try, then, a congressman in the First Congress: “[All] governments incline to despotism, as naturally as rivers run into the sea.” Or President Jefferson, in his 1801 inaugural: A “wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another…[and] leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits is the very “sum of good government.” Or our national sage, Emerson, some years later: “The less government we have, the better.”
One could go on indefinitely netting sentiments like these from the mainstream of American discourse. Yet for a people who seem to be inherently skeptical of government, we have, after two centuries of national existence, an unbelievably generous amount of it. Even those of us who have friendly—or at least explanatory—words to say on behalf of “big government” can’t deny the gargantuan size of the creature. A glance at the federal establishment alone, which usually provokes the loudest critical outcries, is sobering. A handy Information Please Almanac informs me that at the end of 1991 the total number of civilian federal employees, rounded off to the nearest thousand (a practice that we shall follow throughout this excursion), was 3.103 million. Their payroll for the single month of October (likewise in round numbers) was $9.687 billion. State and local governments left those numbers in the shade; they employed 15.455 million workers and paid them, in the same month, more than $31 billion.
Before falling into apoplexy, however, antigovernment readers should recall that all these public employees, like those in private industry, return some of that money in tax payments and pump the rest of it into the economy through purchases and savings. All the same, a very natural curiosity arises about what on earth they all are doing.
The official answer with respect to the National Government is contained in The United States Government Manual , which is compiled annually by the Office of the Federal Register, a division of the National Archives and Records Administration. You can order the 1996–97 edition by mail from the Superintendent of Documents or buy it for thirty-six dollars at one of the bookstores maintained by the Government Printing Office in major cities. The text is available in electronic format, too, through the GPO’s Electronic Information Dissemination Services. In print or in bytes, the Manual dissects and labels the working parts of the federal bureaucracy with dismaying thoroughness.
The 1994–95 edition, for example, is 917 pages thick, including 73 pages of appendices, 8 of which are devoted exclusively to listing the acronyms that speckle documents composed in bureaucratese. Even the most cursory and partial overview is somewhat numbing. Let us turn to a single agency of the legislative branch, the General Accounting Office.
The GAO’s “fundamental” mission is defined as “supporting the Congress” through “a variety of services, the most prominent of which are audits and evaluations of Government programs and activities.” Its chief official is the Comptroller General of the United States, who has a Deputy and a Special Assistant. Behind them stand five more Assistants, one each for Planning and Reporting, Operations, Policy, Quality Management, and Information-Management and Communications. Six more Assistants direct divisions, including General Government; Health, Education, and Human Services; National Security and International Affairs; and Program Evaluation and Methodology.
We have only begun. There is a General Counsel, and following him in the charts are thirteen Directors of Support Functions, whose dominions include the Civil Rights Office and the Office of Affirmative Action Plans, Congressional Relations, Counseling and Career Development, Internal Evaluation, and International Audit Organization Liaison. Each of these has a staff and employees whose total number goes unreported in the Manual .