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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
Any kind of detailed look will quickly show the impossibility of explaining these numbers without reference to the last fifty years of constant military readiness. We stipulated at the outset that war-related expansion would not be taken into account in explaining growth, yet since 1945 the line of demarcation between war and peace has been hard to find. All the same, it is worth a try. We can begin at any rate with an unambiguously domestic six-year boom in big government (1933–39) that goes under the label of the New Deal. Did the proliferation of the much defamed “alphabetical agencies” of the first two FDR administrations bring on the age of mega-administration and social engineering?
IN 1939, despite all FDR’s Depression-relief programs, more than half of the record-size work force was delivering the mail or manning the ramparts.
Yes, but with some qualifications. A breakdown of the 1939 federal payroll of 953,891 shows that the Post Office was still the biggest agency, with 291,114, followed by the War Department (even in its state of unreadiness), with 123,624, and the Department of the Navy, with 99,024. In short, more than half of that big work force was delivering the mail and manning the ramparts. Many Depression-relief agencies had already disappeared (like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Recovery Administration, ruled unconstitutional) or been folded into the cabinet departments. Of those remaining, the Federal Works Agency, the shrinking remnant of the Works Progress Administration that occupied the unemployed with public-works projects, had 46,659 workers, but that was scarcely more than the 45,844 in the Department of the Interior. A pair of freestanding assistance programs, the Federal Security Agency (running the four-year-old Social Security Board) and the Federal Loan Agency, kept 40,713 people at work between them, but the long-established Department of Agriculture towered over these at 86,250. The most far-reaching example of government intervention into making over an entire region, the Tennessee Valley Authority, counted 14,597 employees, but the Panama Canal Department had more (16,505), and the Veterans’ Administration two and a half times as many (38,493). As for the regulatory authorities, the National Labor Relations Board had all of 874 civil servants at its beck; the Securities and Exchange Commission, 1,616; the Federal Communications Commission, only 624. For comparison, the Government Printing Office kept 5,874 men and women at work.
It appears on the one hand, then, that the growth was largely a continuation of long-term trends within the already established departments, which kept on doing on a larger scale what they had long been doing—mainly helping grease the wheels of a capitalist economy. On the other hand, many new or enlarged subdivisions of the Agriculture and Interior Departments, for example, were carrying out unprecedented programs of conservation, housing assistance, electrification, relocation, and other forms of state planning. After the massive shock of the Depression, the federal government was expected to concern itself as never before with the public welfare—with social security in a very general sense—and with doing for new beneficiaries some of the favors that it had long routinely done for Western settlers or businessmen seeking foreign markets. As Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in a speech shortly before the 1936 election, “ Of course we will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America.… Of course we will continue to work for cheaper electricity in the homes and on the farms of America.… Of course we will continue our efforts in behalf of the farmers of America.… Of course we will continue our efforts for young men and women…for the crippled, for the blind, for the mothers, our insurance for the unemployed, our security for the aged. Of course we will continue to protect the consumer.…”
Shortly afterward a majority of voters in forty-six states registered their agreement by re-electing him. Perhaps it was because FDR’s “we” referred to a government that he was always careful to call in his fireside chats “ your government.” It was Roosevelt’s personification of government as trustworthy, friendly, and responsive to the most ordinary citizen that was revolutionary and that became the basis for a new American confidence—now lost—that a big and socially active national establishment was not necessarily, as Jefferson might have held, an evil in itself.