Argument: Govt growth results mainly from citizens demanding it

Issue Report: Big government


“The Case FOR Bureaucracy.” “The Real Causes of Government growth]: “Ironically, during the last several decades, as right-wing complaints about ever-increasing government have escalated, little growth has actually occurred in the federal government. However, if we look back over a longer historical period, say to the early 1900s, there is no denying that the size and scope of the federal and state governments have grown considerably. Our governments have much greater responsibilities in regulating corporations and the economic system, and we have many more programs in areas like health care, education, and the environment. But the question is whether this kind of historical growth in government has been caused by the inherent tendency of bureaucracies to expand. The answer is no. As one political scientist, Max Neiman, who studied this question extensively, has concluded, “Bureaucratic imperialism, by which public agencies generate an autonomous force for government growth, seems fairly insignificant as a cause of growing government size.”20 But if this is true, what has driven the historical expansion of government in the United States?

One important clue can be found by identifying those periods in which government has expanded the most. For example, 70% of the growth in federal regulatory agencies occurred during three decades, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1970s.21 What these decades have in common is that they were times of enormous economic and social upheaval and increased political activism. In other words, government responsibilities increased because of public demand for social and economic regulation increased. During those eras, massed-based social movements – including the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement – insisted that the government address a wide variety of pressing social and economic problems.

We have big government today primarily because citizens have realized that large-scale public programs are necessary to solve big problems – economic depressions, an elderly population mired in poverty, widespread racism, growing environmental degradation, a health care crisis, etc. As Nieman has concluded, “A substantial source of growth in government activity in democratic societies is driven … by citizens and other groups using government to improve their life-chances.”22 So it makes little sense to argue that growth in government has been something forced onto the American people by power-hungry bureaucrats. Government has grown mainly because we have wanted it to grow – something conservatives seem unable to admit. Growth in government is primarily a product of democracy at work, and so it should be something that is celebrated, not condemned.”