Big Government / Small Government

There is no question that the federal government has become big. Estimates of its size at the turn of the 20th century are in single digits. Some more recent estimates are closer to 50% of GDP.

The real question is whether reducing this size would improve things. It’s even questionable that government could be reduced without destroying essential services.

If one looks at the long list of government bureaus, it would seem that many might be disbanded, or at least subsumed under a larger agency. But those in an agency to be disbanded will fight to the end, as will the constituents affected, so even small reductions are difficult, and it’s not even certain that money would be saved if they were disbanded.

Government has become big. The question is
whether reducing it would improve things.

Conservatives’ plan to radically reduce the size of government by congressional fiat, however, is both unwise and impractical, because much of what they propose to eliminate is obviously essential to the functioning of the country, and would leave the country flying blind without essential information and with a foreshortened future. The bulk of the losses would fall to those who make the least income. Further, they refuse to even consider reducing the one thing that might help, our vastly bloated military budget with its multi-billion-dollar congressional weapons toys.

The fact is, there is such a thing as economy of scale, however. Certain things work better big, and the national government is the largest of scales. In anything that affects all citizens, or even a significant percentage of them, a government-run program is most likely to be the most efficient way to go because the government has maximum negotiating power. This should be obvious to free market conservatives above all others. Further, the capitalist imperative to generate profit for rich owners is totally absent from government agencies. Nor do the directors of such agencies earn corporate America’s ridiculously bloated salaries.

Consider prescription drugs. For many of the most common drugs, if we are forced to buy them as an uninsured individual, one drug can easily cost $500-$1,000 per month. If the same drug were part of a national insurance plan, the actual cost of the drug would be some small fraction of that because of bargaining power.

In anything that affects all citizens,
a government-run program
will be the most efficient way.

Conservatives scoff at the idea that government could do anything right. All government, according to them, is inherently inefficient and wasteful. While there are certainly examples of that, it is by no means universal, or even widespread. Further, there are plenty of inefficient corporations that repeatedly come begging for government help. Moreover, the kind of government waste that does occur, failures to coordinate work, duplication of effort, inefficient ordering of supplies and the like, occur just as frequently in private industry.

It is corporate-political power that has created the long downward slide of everyone but the rich, not big government. Greater efficiency in government is always possible, but it is corporations and their influence that are too big. Government power is not an anti-democratic force; corporate-political power is.

Several private industries had to be rescued by the government recently because they were “too big to fail”. The difference between these and large government agencies is that it is not necessary to restore a government agency to profitability, because public agencies are not for profit, and can be fixed with budgetary and structural adjustment as needed.

It is corporate-political power that has created
the long downward slide of everyone
but the rich, not big government.

This is not an argument that all large enterprises should be government run, only that they should not be so large and monopolistic that their demise would damage the national economy. At the same time, there are important endeavors that would greatly benefit from being managed by the government, if for no other reason than that generating profit would no longer be necessary.

In short, some small savings might be obtained by reducing certain bureaus, but it is unlikely that significant money would be saved by eliminating the numbers of agencies that conservatives are proposing. Worse, if they were successful in this purge, the true effect would be quickly felt, and it would be an economic and democratic disaster.


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