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What Is the Best Way for Measuring the Size of the State?

I recently had a conversation with a professional sociologist, a liberal who actually believes in federal bureaucracy as an ideal, and who claimed that the best way of measuring the size of government is to consider the total number of government employees and their ratio to the size of the work force as a whole. According to him, the total number of federal employees has actually decreased in the past decades, meaning that the federal government has actually shrunk. His comments:

I do have some stats.  My old social problems texts started me thinking on this problem.  My favorite Social Problems Text was by J. John Palen– a VCU sociology professor who retired about 5 years ago.  His book is now out of print and dated, (2001) On Page 226 it states:

“When discussing the size of the federal government, two facts have to be kept in mind: (1) the number of federal government employees has actually been declining for a number of years, and (2) federal government employees are declining as a proportion of the total labor force. In 1960 when Dwight Eisenhower turned over the presidency to John F. Kennedy, the federal government employed almost 4 percent of American workers. Today, federal employment constitutes only 2 percent of American workers. Also, the federal government now accounts for only 16 percent of all government workers; 84 percent of government workers now are found at the state and local level. Local government is where growth is taking place.”

This caught my attention and Palen was the person who seemed to express it most clearly.  But you have to be careful about statistics like this– I scanned some recent sources and there seems to be considerable variation in the numbers that they report, depending upon who is included, excluded, etc. You can see what I found at the bottom of this.

Here is one article that sums it up: http://economics.about.com/od/howtheuseconomyworks/a/gov_growth.htm (But “About.com” is hardly a scholarly source). You’ll see a lot of stuff from conservatives on the growth of the Fed– But they generally discuss the size of the federal budget or debt and some of them don’t take inflation into account.  I prefer to look at the numbers of employees.  Finally, the budget figures that we see also include money that is paid out to private contractors who do government work. So the question in this regard is can we count these private contractors as government employees?  I’m not sure that even conservatives would want to do this.

Here’s some more material (more recent) on the number of federal employees.

Federal/Civilian Work Force Statistics Fact Book for 2007 shows a slight decline from 2000 to 2006 in federal civilian employment —  But I’m not happy with this because it is incomplete. http://www.opm.gov/feddata/factbook/2007/2007FACTBOOK.pdf

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is also a good source;  (It points out with nearly 2 million employees (excluding the U.S. Post Office, and the various intelligence agencies; CIA, NSA, DIA, and NIMA) is the nation’s largest employer. But, its difficult to find historical trends on this site.

I always like the U.S. Bureau of the Census… http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs041.htm– I’ve looked over the Statistical abstract of the U.S.  Not as clear as I would like, but you can see the trends…

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0486.pdf–(This source shows a decline from 2.766 mil to 1.812 mil between 2000 and 2007– Not quite what I wanted, though)

Again from the Census– (A little better but still not exactly what I want– This covers the period from 1990 to 2006)  Table 489. Federal Executive Branch (Nonpostal) Employment by Race and National Origin: 1990 to 2006 http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0489.pdf– A drop from 21 million to 18 million.

This one’s a little better– going back to 1970:  Table 484. Federal Civilian Employment and Annual Payroll by Branch: 1970 to 2008– http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0484.pdf

Finally we have this ( http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0487.pdf)  Table 487. Federal Civilian Employment by Branch and Agency: 1990 to 2008

Two questions arise from this.

What is the best way to measure the size of the state? The number of state employees? The amount of GDP consumed by the state? The total of public spending and debt? The number of laws on the books? Something else?

The second question is what layer of government intrudes most into society and into our day to day lives, and maintains the largest overall bureaucratic enterprise? The majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts. Some of the most intrusive regulations can come from the local level, like fix-it or ticket laws, zoning, licensing, land use, and so forth. The feds have war-making powers and, potentially, the power of conscription.

As an anarchist, decentralist, and secessionist I certainly maintain that the federal government is the most undesirable of the levels of government. Pennsylvania or Nashville have not killed a million people in Iraq, three million in Southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands in Central America, millions more in counterinsurgency programs, hundreds of thousands with a single bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incineration of entire cities like Dresden, etc.

If Bridgeport passes an intolerable law, it’s easier to relocate out of the city than out of the country. Even if states have larger bureaucracies than the feds, emigration to another state is easier than transnational emigration. And even the worst local and state policies don’t produce the casualties generated by the Empire.

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3 replies »

  1. Finally, the budget figures that we see also include money that is paid out to private contractors who do government work. So the question in this regard is can we count these private contractors as government employees? I’m not sure that even conservatives would want to do this.

    No, I definitely want to do this. Maybe the neo-cons and the private enterprises that profit from the warfare-state feel differently, but they were never really all that conservative to begin with.

  2. I think the Federal government can quite easily be blamed for being diversionary. It’s harder to pay attention to local goings ons because national goings ons are so much more severe.

    I also agree with BB. The measure of the government is the amount of resources it controls. If there was a multi-billionaire bossing people around, no one would say: “well, he only has a couple million in reality because he pays a lot of other people to do his dirty work.”

  3. Yes, I agree with both of you. The various levels and divisions of the state in the U.S. consume something like 37% of GDP. In Europe it’s more than 50%. I would assume in North Korea it’s close to 100%.

    What matters is not how many actual employees the government has. What matters is what kinds of powers the government has and what kinds and how much of society’s resources does it control.

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