The Case FOR Bureaucracy

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Myth No. 4: Bureaucracy is a Major Cause of Government Growth

Conservatives also like to charge that bureaucracy is one of the main causes of government growth. They argue that government bureaucracies have an inherent tendency to expand. The reason is this: agency officials bent on their own career advancement are always pushing to increase their power and their budgets. Thus, bureaucracies – like cancer – inevitably become ever-growing entities with ever-increasing destructive effects. Bureaucracies are constantly eating up more tax-payer dollars and imposing more and more rules on American citizens.

This criticism of bureaucracy seems plausible, but is it really true? The evidence suggests that it is not. Consider, for example, the assumption that we are plagued by an ever-growing federal bureaucracy. Figures show that federal agencies have not been growing at an alarming rate. If we go back to 1970, we find that 2,997,000 civilians worked for the federal government at that time. By 2009, that figure had actually gone down – to 2,804,000.16 So much for the constantly expanding federal bureaucracy.

Second, it is not clear at all that bureaucrats are always seeking to expand their agencies and their budgets. This budget-maximizing thesis was directly contradicted by a study conducted by Julie Dolan.17 She compared the views of members of the federal senior civil service to those of the general public when it came to whether we should be spending more or less in a wide variety of policy areas, including education, healthcare, defense, welfare, environment, college financial aid, AIDS research, homelessness, etc. She found that in most areas the public was willing to support increased spending much more than the agency administrators. And in most cases, a majority of these administrators did not support increased budgets. This was due, she believed, to administrators having a more realistic and sophisticated knowledge of these issues and programs. Her conclusion: “In sum, the budget-minimizing tendencies of federal administrators reported here suggest that self-interest is not as powerful a motivator as previously believed, and they suggest we should revise our theories about self-interested bureaucrats inflating government budgets for their own gain.”18

Another theory of bureaucratic expansion suggests that the government grows because once an administrative agency is established, it will stick around even when its program is no longer needed. In short, the bureaucracy never shrinks, it only grows. However, studies have shown that the conservatives are just plain wrong when they claim that outmoded programs are rarely purged from government. Robert Stein and Kenneth Bikers completed a study in which they examined the number of federal programs that were eliminated between 1971 and 1990. During that twenty-year span, an average of thirty-six federal programs were terminated each year.19 A pretty amazing figure. The commonly held notion that bureaucracies never die is clearly false.

The Real Causes of Government Growth

Ironically, during the last several decades, as right-wing complaints about ever-increasing government have escalated, little growth has actually occurred in the federal government. However, if we look back over a longer historical period, say to the early 1900s, there is no denying that the size and scope of the federal and state governments have grown considerably. Our governments have much greater responsibilities in regulating corporations and the economic system, and we have many more programs in areas like health care, education, and the environment. But the question is whether this kind of historical growth in government has been caused by the inherent tendency of bureaucracies to expand. The answer is no. As one political scientist, Max Neiman, who studied this question extensively, has concluded, “Bureaucratic imperialism, by which public agencies generate an autonomous force for government growth, seems fairly insignificant as a cause of growing government size.”20 But if this is true, what has driven the historical expansion of government in the United States?

One important clue can be found by identifying those periods in which government has expanded the most. For example, 70% of the growth in federal regulatory agencies occurred during three decades, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1970s.21 What these decades have in common is that they were times of enormous economic and social upheaval and increased political activism. In other words, government responsibilities increased because the public demand for social programs and economic regulation increased. During those eras, mass-based social movements – including the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement – insisted that the government address a wide variety of pressing social and economic problems.

We have big government today primarily because citizens have realized that large-scale public programs are necessary to solve big problems – economic depressions, an elderly population mired in poverty, widespread racism, growing environmental degradation, a health care crisis, etc. As Nieman has concluded, “A substantial source of growth in government activity in democratic societies is driven … by citizens and other groups using government to improve their life-chances.”22 So it makes little sense to argue that growth in government has been something forced onto the American people by power-hungry bureaucrats. Government has grown mainly because we have wanted it to grow – something conservatives seem unable to admit. Growth in government is primarily a product of democracy at work, and so it should be something that is celebrated, not condemned.

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