Why American Government Is Neither Big Nor Bad

Ethan Temple
National Policy

In American political culture, there has existed an ethos of fear and distrust in what is often called, in derisive and derogatory tones, “big government.” This term usually elicits an ever-persistent fear that the United States government will become, or currently is, too large to hold accountable, and thereby allow them to violate our rights and liberties at will. This political psychology has been particularly resonant with conservatives and the Republican Party, who often eschew from implementing policy and initiatives from on high, instead advocating for the states to take the charge on matters of policy and politics, leaving the federal government without much say. While arguably blameless in their rationale, with one cursory glance at American history proving why this country has an affinity towards a limited government, in practice this “fear” of big government is not only highly exaggerated, it is also baseless, with such an argument takes into consideration the historical trends in government spending and the size of the federal civil service. Moreover, whenever “big government” initiatives have been implemented, more often than not, they have helped the American people on a scale heretofore unforeseen when taking a small government approach. The point that is being made here is quite simple: big government, despite the anxieties and fears, is an objectively good thing to consider when thinking about moving this nation forward. 

How Do Americans Think of Their Government?

Americans, in general, remain doubtful in the capabilities of their government, which in turn translates in abysmal trust levels in Washington. According to a Pew Research poll, only 28% of Americans, as of September 2020, have faith in the American government, which is both devastating and a call to action on both sides of the aisle. For New Right conservatives, they see this as a mandate to shrink the federal government’s capacity and devolve power back to the states and local government; that is, further break down the power of DC and hand them back to more localized institutions a la Thomas Jefferson’s view of the Republic. This translates to the 80% of conservative Republicans who say that the federal government does too much and therefore needs to be scaled back, per a separate Pew Research poll from December of 2019. 

These calls for a scaled back government are most explicitly seen from within the halls of Congress, where Republican politicians raise issues with massive amounts of government spending and accompanying tax hikes, such as what is currently underway with the American Jobs Plan, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republican Senators derided the bill as being too expensive, while also hesitating to increase taxes on the wealthy that would pay off these expenditures without dipping into deficit spending. So, evidently, it is not increasing the debt that McConnell and the GOP caucus are most concerned over, but rather the increasing involvement of American government in the affairs of the average citizen, whilst during a pandemic. Of course, there are more nuanced approaches to why Republicans don’t want to spend trillions that the US does not have, but they all do have one common thread betwixt them: as these packages would increase the leverage the federal government has on the lives of average citizens, which is something Republican politicians cannot abide by.

Contrarily, however, most Americans, as well as nearly all Democratic politicians, have advocated for the expansion of government across several policy areas, though which areas there is of significant berth, though the trend does remain. A 2020 Pew Research poll shows that a vast majority of Americans want the government expanded in at least a few areas of policy, with anywhere from 72% to 93% of Democrats and left-leaning independents calling for an expansion in government initiatives across all forms of policy. For Democrats, this was most heavily seen in their desire for expanded healthcare services from the government; extrapolating this would imply that most Democrats are in favor of expanding the Affordable Care Act or implementing a universal healthcare system along the lines of proposals that Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) advocated for. 

Republicans too are clamoring for expansions in government activity, albeit in very different, and fewer, policy areas. For example, 95% of Republicans believe that the government’s role should be expanded to keep the country safe from terrorism, (Pew does not specify what sort of terrorism, though assumptions can be made here or there) and 85% of Republicans say that the government should play a much bigger role in controlling immigration. Both such issues are in line with the general Republican platform, but what is most striking is that while they have much lower numbers than Democrats on what they believe the federal government should have a bigger hand in, these numbers are still significant majorities within this political cohort. Take for example whether DC should ensure that we are able to handle public health crises (which is quite prescient as of the authoring of this paper); while Republicans are criticizing the federal government’s handling of this particular pandemic, 68% of the Republican electorate agrees with 90% of Democrats that Washington should have a wider mandate in dealing with public health emergencies. The only issue Pew polled that saw a minority of Republicans say the federal government should have a bigger say was healthcare, which ties into a point that may explain why conservatives distrust big government. Evidently, expansion in mandates on particular policies are not what drive conservatives away from a big government; instead what drives them away from an expanded government is, rather obviously at this point, ideology and outside perception. 

According to a separate, but already referenced, Pew Research poll, Republicans are more likely to agree with the statement that government “is almost always wasteful and inefficient,” with 68% of Republicans saying as such, compared to 47% of Democrats agreeing to this statement. This seems to indicate that in some capacity the government is failing them and that what they are executing are not necessarily benefiting them, the constituents, in time. This thought process is not without its own merit, as there is evidence to suggest that the federal government does have many inefficiencies in its structure, such as an unaudited $25 billion that the government had lost track of back in 2004, as pointed out by the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation, or the general inefficacy of our modern infrastructure, which the government has failed to even propose a bill to fund improvement projects. Will the government be inefficient at times? Yes, as will all things if not properly reformed and outfitted for a new age. Yet for all the complaints that Americans levy against their inefficient government, we fail to recognize that our government, relative to our enormous population and our enormous GDP, is surprisingly small

Trends in Government Size

Like all governments, the US federal system is incredibly complex, staffed by millions of civil servants and adjuncts, many of whom operate in the executive bureaucracy. This has yet to take into account the local and state officials that run the thousands of cities, townships, localities, and state governments across the country. In so far as defining what a “civil servant” is, they are those individuals that work in the civilian sectors of the American government, which means that the armed forces does not count towards the civil service’s total employment count. Semantics aside, many have harped on the notion that the federal bureaucracy is over bloated, often pointing to this very statistic and the salaries of civil servants. In reality, there are about 2.1 million federal employees, per a joint report from the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget; these federal employees are the permanent civil servants Americans more often refer to, and while there are federal contractors under the jurisdiction of Washington, they, nor the civil service writ large, do not contribute to the notion that the federal government is a bloated apparatus that contributes to wasteful use of our tax money. Why? Quite simply, there are two factors: one, the civil service is relatively small in comparison to the entire population of the United States, which numbers close to 329 million people; the second is that the civil service has seen more dismissals than hirings in recent years, with a turnover rate of about .02% per thousand servants, per Business Insider. However, taking a cursory glance at the staffing of the service is one point to be had in this debate; the true devil within the details lies in America’s spending habits. 

America’s Spending Habits

Americans harp on the notion that the federal government spends way too much money on government programs, and yet these programs are never truly capable of fulfilling the roles they were established to fill. In a sense, this is true; however, when reviewing the statistics and data of America’s spending habits, combined with the fact that the bureaucracy is way too small, a pattern begins to form from this. For now, however, focus should first be placed on Washington’s use of the purse. In DC, there are two types of spending: mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending always increases with each fiscal year and encompasses entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Money is never withdrawn or reallocated from these programs, so a significant portion of the federal budget is allocated specifically to this sector of the country. In 2020, welfare spending (which is concurrently encompassed by mandatory spending through entitlements) amounted to about $396 billion, which sounds like a lot until it is compared to the size of the GDP of the country, which is about 18 trillion USD. In effect, welfare spending accounts for roughly 8% of our GDP, which is very minute when considering the US dedicated $934 billion in the same fiscal year’s budget, per The Balance. This lack of funding for welfare programs is also compounded by the fact that tax rates have been cut for the nation’s highest earners, where one would think most of the money would come from in terms of tax revenue, having gone down from a marginal rate of 50% in the mid-20th century to just shy of 21% under former President Donald Trump. Without those funds, the government has had to rely on deficit spending, which builds our debt, which further fuels our fears of big government and a bigger national debt. However, Americans should be more keen on how beneficial such programs they are being offered truly are, seeing as other nations in the OECD have more robust, better funded versions of our own, all while possessing larger governments relative to their populations.

America and Other National Governments

Setting aside the population disparities between other OECD nations and the American government, it is safe to say that the United States underspends on programs relative to the other nations in this Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to a right-leaning liberatrian think tank, the CATO Institute, 38% of America’s GDP is dedicated to spending on social programs meant to help its people; all other OECD nations spend an average of 43% of their GDP on these programs. What this means is that nearly, if not all, the OECD states have better funded, and thereby more reliable, programs that have gone towards better aiding and helping their people, whilst the Americans are limited in their capacity to help their people, aside from defending them with the most complicated military in the history of mankind. The disparity between the OECD and the US’s allocative priorities were highlighted in a BBC article, where it compared the US’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to that of two other nations: Canada and France. 

Under TANF, for example, it provides a package of $418 per month provided that the recipient is a lone parent of two children who is currently employed. While it was beneficial at first, this law has recently fallen into disuse after the block grants it utilizes began to lose its purchasing power due to inflation, which has forced many to switch to indirect means of welfare, such as food stamps. In Canada, the system is federalized, meaning that welfare is dependent upon the policies of each province, similar to the American system, where states set how much money or aid a recipient can get. However, Canada’s benefits are more lenient and plentiful, with an average package being around $779 USD (converted from $941 CAD) and they do not require the recipient to work. France has an even greater social program, with each recipient gaining about 1069 euros, equivalent to about $1303 USD, with no requirement of having a family to attain such benefits. Japan is not included in the BBC article, but its expanded government allows for a more versatile social safety net, implementing social assistance, tax credits, housing benefits and family benefits to their welfare programs; the US, meanwhile, only incorporates social and family assistance benefits. What ties these all together is the fact that Canada, France and Japan all have larger, more effective governments than the United States relative to their populations. According to the MacDonald Laurier Institute, the Canadian government spends about 44% of its GDP alone through traditional fiscal policy, but incorporating price regulation and tax expenditures increases this to 64%, indicating that the Canadian government utilizes more of its funding to help its citizens more so than the US does.  In Japan, a nation of 126 million, about 3 million of them work for the central government, and they spend 41% of their GDP towards programs that directly benefit their people. To top this off, about 67% of Canadians say they live happy lives, and 62% of Japanese say the same; 14% of Americans would agree with their Canadian and Japanese counterparts. 

So, where does this all tie into? What implication does this lead to? It is that the United States government is most certainly not too big for its britches; quite the contrary, it is not big enough. Centuries of fear and distrust of the capabilities of a large government has, bluntly speaking, distorted the perceptions of many Americans, and granted this is without good reason; yet times have changed. No longer are a group of weak colonies under the thumb of a monarch and his almighty military; rather, we are currently one of the world’s greatest powers, eclipsing that of even our former mother country...yet we have a government that is paltry and unaccommodating relative to other nations. Our ideal of a limited government has resulted in a country whose healthcare infrastructure is controlled by private organizations that seek profit rather than health, whose social welfare programs go underfunded due to decades of diminishing revenue streams a la neoliberal and trickle down policies, and whose civil service is woefully understaffed in a nation that has a population that outnumbers them hundreds to 1. Having a limited government does not, nor should not, indicate that we should have a small government, devoid of the workers and connections capable of reaching out to all Americans; just such a government would fail to uphold the infrastructure of the state and be an abject failure to the eyes of its people, who demand more help in an ever-advancing age. A limited government should not mean depriving hard working Americans of even the most basic of benefits in order to fulfill an old idea from 200 years prior; rather, it should mean that the State should be there to help their citizens, not control them. That was what the founders wanted to begin with: a government that did not control their peoples like that of autocrats, yet they most certainly wanted the government to help the people, for both working together would illustrate America’s indomitable spirit, after centuries of hardship and chaos. Today we see the effects of just how ineffective our limited government is, how so much wrong there is in a country whose government is hamstrung by historical handcuffs and twisted interests. America needs a much stronger government, and in doing so, needs a bigger government to effectively solve our problems. Government is not the issue; it is a solution. 

















Ethan Temple