Conservatives loathe “big government.” I mean, they hate it with a passion. But their antipathy for big government is manufactured from a false pretense that larger government leads to smaller individual liberty. It’s hard to believe something as complex as the United States government, in a country with a population over 300 million, could be boiled down to a zero sum game of government vs. liberty, but that’s conservative logic for ya.
And because we know many conservatives have no problem meddling in the lives of others on issues like abortion, welfare, and food stamps, then it must be the actual size of government that scares them, not the issues. I mean, if big government was scary when it comes to actual issues, then you’d think conservatives would make a stink about an overreaching security apparatus in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Except for the staunch libertarian wing of the conservative movement, you’d be hard-pressed to find much push-back in this area.
So size of government is what we will focus on for this article, not issues. How do we measure the size of government? We could measure it based on revenue or expenditures, but I think taking a took at government employment compared to population would be the best way to measure the size of government. So let’s calculate United States residents per government worker (federal, state and local). And let’s start with 1981, the year when newly elected president, Ronald Reagan said in his inaugural speech, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Reagan ushered in the era of the modern conservative movement and its thorough contempt for government and public sector workers. Ask any conservative, particularly Tea Party types if they think government is too big, and you know what the answer will be. So 2012 should have the least amount of residents per government worker if we are to believe the Grover Norquist’s of the world. Right?
It’s important to remember that this chart represents an inverse measurement of big government. Smaller numbers on this chart mean bigger government, and vice versa. As the chart trends up, that means public sector jobs did not keep pace with population growth — smaller government. As the chart trends down, that means public sector jobs outpaced population growth — bigger government.
This means President George W. Bush presided over the biggest government in the past three decades in 2002, although conservatives could say he trended (modestly) towards smaller government in the years that followed, again, in comparison to total population.
President Reagan presided over the smallest government in comparison to population in his first term, but that quickly changed in his second term. The size of government generally kept pace with population during the one term of President George H.W. Bush and the two terms of President Bill Clinton, although Clinton did see a modest increase in size of government in 1999. But the president who has presided over the most rapid shrinking of government (as compared to population) in the shortest time frame is President Barack Obama, almost reaching Reagan levels by 2012.
Obviously the data behind this chart is incapable of revealing the whole story. Maybe government got more efficient in the last few years, allowing for greater population density per government worker. I don’t even know if that’s true or not, but I know that would also contradict conservative rhetoric about inept and inefficient government. Either way, if conservatives are going to stick to their big government mantra, then they have some splainin’ to do to reconcile public sector job growth not keeping pace with population growth during President Obama’s tenure in office. In fact, not only has it not kept pace, there are about one million fewer public sector jobs now compared to when George W. Bush was in office.
So let’s put to bed the notion of big government. What we need is efficient government. What we need is government that doesn’t infringe on privacy, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. What we don’t need is an arbitrary measure based on nothing other than cries of “big government.” Because what’s remarkable about this chart is that it shows a relatively steady size of government compared to population during this three decade period. The scale of this chart ranges from 13.38 to 14.6 residents per government worker, which is hardly a large deviation. It means the size of government, at least by this measure, has remained within a tight range during the past five presidential administrations. Although, if the current trend of public sector job losses continues for a few more years, that analysis is subject to change. And that would only further show the conservative “big government” claim for what it is — a lie.