The Size of Government
HOW BIG IS government in America? The question invites a further query: how do we measure the size of government? One measure would be the number of people who work for government. According to this measure, the size of the federal government in the United States has been relatively stable for some time and in recent years has declined, even though the total population of the United States has risen. Federal civilian employment reached a peak of nearly 3.4 million people during World War II, fell to 2 million in 1947, and then rose, fluctuating between 2.8 and 3 million between 1968 and 1984. Federal employment reached it highest level, 3.1 million, in 1987 and has since declined to under 3 miilion. 1
Yet this measure is clearly an inadequate guide to the reach of government because the federal government has always contracted with other governments such as those of states, cities, and counties and with nongovernmental agencies for the supply of goods and services. One federal employee signing checks may be responsible for the employment of thousands at other levels of government or in the private sector. Governments have long bought equipment such as warships and bombers from corporations that are in legal terms separate entities in the private sector. More recently, governments around the world have shown increased readiness to purchase services ranging from the cleaning of their offices to incarcerating criminals from private-sector companies. 2 Counting the number of government employees does not therefore tell us very much about the proportion of the economy controlled by government.