President Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 by campaigning against a federal government he said spent too much money and wrote too many rules. His argument that government was too big has dominated the national debate ever since.
Now, however, some are asking whether he was right. They point to potholed roads that go unrepaired for lack of money, and the widening gap between society’s haves and have-nots. China’s emergence as a world power with vast high-speed rail networks and huge investments in solar energy and science have made some Americans wonder whether they have squandered their global lead by penny-pinching.
The irony is that the government is perhaps bigger today than at any time in history. When President Lincoln took office in 1861, he ran the government from a small study in the White House, and 30,000 of the 36,000 federal workers were post office employees. Today, the government directly employs almost 2.1 million civilians, 1.5 million people in the military, and another 6.8 million who work for the federal government indirectly as contractors or through grants. Spending is at a record high. And President Biden is proposing to spend trillions more to modernize not just highways but also basic services from internet access to preschool education.
How did this transformation happen? The Great Depression was a turning point: It caused so much upheaval that people wanted the government to take on a larger role in the economy and caring for its citizens. The most influential of the programs created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was Social Security, a system of payments to support the elderly.
Sometimes big government has worked wonders. President Eisenhower’s commitment to build today’s interstate highways transformed the economy, and President Johnson’s Great Society programs brought health care to the poor and elderly. But they also created new bureaucracies and new costs for upkeep. Once a program is started, it’s hard to kill it, because voters appreciate the benefits, and the programs create jobs.
Today no politician would oppose guaranteed health care for old people or a highway system, but the division over whether to approve new projects is as fierce as ever.
“A lot of it,” says Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center, “comes down to the fact that we’ve always had an ambivalence about government in this country and what it should take on.”