What Made The Government Grow


There is a natural tendency to assume that much of the government’s enlargement at this time was brought on by the progressive movement, which swept the nation between 1901 and 1916, fostering an array of laws for the regulation of the economy and the improvement of public health and safety. Such new responsibilities undoubtedly swelled state payrolls, but in the federal government they present a fuzzier picture, in spite of complaints like those voiced by one Charles N. Fay in a 1923 volume that would doubtless still appeal to today’s conservatives. Fay railed that Americans were facing “the same old fight with Too Much Government and Too Much Taxation [the capitalized words being the title of his book] that has scarred the history of every nation.” He blamed the Granger movement (which attacked the railroads), William Jennings Bryan, “Progressivism,…Wall Street, the bankers, and the trusts, etc., and finally Woodrow Wilson’s vague doctrine of ‘The New Freedom.’” All were variants of “the Marxian attack on ‘Capital.’”


A look at the figures for June 30, 1916, however, does not clearly support such a charge. Of some 438,000 civilian workers for the United States, just under 251,000, or about 57 percent, were still in the Post Office Department. The brand-new Federal Trade Commission, set up in 1914 to enforce antitrust law, had only 238 employees. The Department of Labor, separated from Commerce in 1913, had 2,504. The thirty-year-old Interstate Commerce Commission still had a payroll of just 2,243—far fewer than the 19,291 workers operating the recently opened Panama Canal. The preprogressive cabinet departments (other than the Post Office and Labor) were led in numbers by the War and Navy Departments, with 37,695 and 35,722 respectively. The Treasury employed between 30,000 and 31,000; then came Interior with 19,347, closely trailed by Agriculture at 18,736 and Commerce with 9,903. Justice had a mere 2,610 civil servants at its call.

It is true, of course, that many new “socialistic” tasks of government simply became lodged in traditional departments. Certainly the job of collecting the income tax after 1913 enlarged the Treasury Department; policing the purity of food and drugs under 1907 legislation added to the staff of the Department of Agriculture (a separate Food and Drug Administration did not come along until 1931); and conservation responsibilities increased Interior’s payroll. At any rate, in the fifteen years between 1901 and 1916 total federal civilian employment rose from about 240,000 to 400,000, a 66 percent increase, and in the next fifteen years, when for most of the time the business of America was business, there was further growth to some 600,000. Between mid-1916 and the end of 1929 Treasury and Commerce increased ranks by approximately 70 percent, Agriculture by a third, and Labor by 88 percent. Interior, however, actually lost some 5,000 employees. The I.C.C. remained about the same; the F.T.C. grew, but only to 397 workers.

Pause for another breather now, and brace for the explosion as the historian confronts the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, and the reshaping of the nation’s economy and society from the 1960s to the present day—in all, sixty-four years of practically rocketlike acceleration in the size and power of the national government. Fully describing the changes would require a complete history of our times replete with statistical data. But perhaps we can pick our way among highlights and garner explanatory clues to our further progression toward accepting the monster—supergovernment—despite our proclaimed antistatist heritage. To begin with, an overview.

Three Million Bureaucrats

In 1932, the final year of the Hoover presidency, the federal civilian payroll stood at 605,496. As of June 30, 1940, the last year before the start of a military buildup, it was 1,042,420, a 72 percent jump in eight years. Starting from George Washington’s first administration, it had taken 151 years to create a national government big enough to employ a million people. Under the stress of war, it took only two more to reach the second million (in fact 2.29 million) in 1942. After victory the number never fell below two million except briefly in 1950, before the start of the Korean War, which immediately shot it upward again. Seventeen years later, in 1967, the federal civilian work force was 3,002,461. That, too, was a wartime year (if in fact there is any year during the Cold War that can be considered peacetime), and any post-Vietnam shrinkage was small and short-lived. The totals hovered around 2.9 million from 1970 through 1984, and in 1985 again surged to more than three million, where they have remained at least through 1992, despite the Cold War’s end in 1989. Even if 1967 is excluded as unusual and 1985 therefore taken as the benchmark, we still are confronted with a jump from a few hundred to one million government workers in 151 years, and from one million to three million in the following forty-five.