Big Government Is Still Young

Let's not forget it

I am reading Charles Murray's By the People. Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. By the way, it is quite an engaging read.

Right at the beginning of the book, Murray struggles to give some measure of the extent of increase in government involvement with everyone's life.

Here's a passage:

Until the 1930s, the federal government remained tiny. The federal budget of 1928 totalled $38.0 billion, expressed in 2010 dollars. ...
Of that total budget in 1928, $9.4 billion went to defense. Of non-defense spending, another $9.4 billion went to repayment of the national debt and $9.0 billion went to pensions and the Veteran Bureau. That left $10.2 billion for everything else — all the expenses associated with the White House, the federal judiciary, and the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Commerce, Labour, Interior, the Post Office, and all the independent agencies of the federal government.
Expressed as per capita spending in constant dollars, that $10.2 billion amounted to 1.0 percent of comparable federal spending in 2013. Think about it: one one-hundredth.

Murray has quite a few similar "facts from the past" that turn out to be rather surprising for the contemporary reader. To me, the most striking thing is how fast government expansion was accomplished. I fear we very often forget that. 

In Western countries, most people today think pensions are a most common feature of human life — and yet human beings had compulsory savings and pension systems for a minuscule fraction of their history.

If government grows fast, however, culture changes fast too. The sense of entitlement takes root easily in society.

For one thing, looking back makes us think that big government is not inevitable: after all, government was capricious, tyrannical, arbitrary during most of human history, but it never was this intrusive and expensive.

For the other, it is remarkable how easy we get used — perhaps, we become addicted? — to new government programs, and how strongly they can permeate society and change culture.

First published at © Econlog. Reprinted with permission.

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