How Small Do You Want Your Government?

 

Reflecting upon our debates – or, at least, disagreements – about WHINOS vs RINOS, I began to wonder if there was a difference in assessment of the relative merits of a GOP presidency vs a Hillary/Warren/Sanders (HWS) presidency. We probably all agree that anyone is better than HWS, in at least the short term. But how much better?

If you think things are bad, but not too bad, and in many important areas trending well, then the difference is pretty big. If you think things are really, really bad indeed, then the difference is pretty small. The first camp wants the immature bomb-throwers to shut up and let the adults win the election. The second camp thinks the important thing is to wake the sheeple, and if this election is lost it is a small price to pay for the longer term objective of saving the republic (if that is still possible).

But what do we mean by “bad?” And how does the presidency figure in this? One approach is to ask what would be an acceptable, long-term, sustainable size for the Federal government. Now, government size is notoriously hard to define and/or measure, so I have arbitrarily chosen two measures: number of pages in the Federal Register, and Federal outlays per capita (in 2014 dollars). To give you some context, the two graphs below show their evolution over time.

FederalRegister

The number of pages in the Federal Register per year is a proxy for regulatory activity. It’s not necessarily a great proxy, but it does, I think, give a flavor of the activity of the regulatory state. Prior to 1935, there was no Federal Register: Before the New Deal, it wasn’t needed. (The graph is from the Congressional Research Service (PDF).)

Spending-Per-Capita

Federal outlays per person, on an inflation adjusted basis, give another window on the absolute size of government. (The idea that things should be measured as a proportion of GDP has a lot of problems.) This graph is from Mercatus. It goes back only to 1945 because … I don’t know. The 1948 figure is $2,214. (Remember, these are 2014 dollars.)

My questions to you:

  1. How many pages should the Federal Register have in a normal year? (It would have a lot of pages in a year that a lot of regulations were repealed, so ignore those.)
  2. What should be the Federal outlay per person (in today’s dollars) in a normal year?

By normal, I mean on a long-term, stabilized basis, ignoring transitional costs and world wars.

You might also comment on whether you think there is any correlation between the size of government one considers appropriate and one’s approach to the forthcoming election.

There are 66 comments.

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  1. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Well, I don’t know if I could come up with answers to fit your formula, but in general the size of the government should be able to do five things

    1) Protect international shipping lanes

    2) Protect the country from outside threats

    3) Conduct trade agreements on behalf of US businesses

    4) Conduct diplomacy on behalf of the American people

    5) Ensure that the federal highways and waterways (airways might have to be included too) are safe, efficient, and modern

    That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  All other things that our government is doing can and should be done in the states.

    • #1
  2. Badderbrau Member
    Badderbrau
    @EKentGolding

    Federal Outlay per Person,  Normal Year ,  $5000.00.   Once the accumulated Debt ( not the deficit, the total Debt) is paid off,   $7000.00.

    Federal Register — 5000 pages a year,  4800  of them announcing the cancellation of previous regulations.     When the regulatory  load is reduced to an optimal low level – 300 pages per year.

    I am not sure our country can survive  a Bush/Clinton/Warren/Saunders/Biden/Webb Presidency.    Not sure the American People can wake up, or if there would be anything left to wake up to.

    Unfortunately,   America is getting the government that I think about 70% of Americans actively want.

    • #2
  3. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Robert McReynolds:

    3) Conduct trade agreements on behalf of US businesses

    On behalf of the American people as a whole, surely.

    5) Ensure that the federal highways and waterways (airways might have to be included too) are safe, efficient, and modern

    And this could be done at the State level, too. You can drive or barge (and fly) across Europe (for example) without there being a centralised government that is responsible for highways and waterways.

    • #3
  4. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    To throw in another number, Federal spending on military defence per person per year in today’s dollars is around $1,800.

    • #4
  5. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    genferei: If you think things are bad, but not too bad, and in many important areas trending well, then the difference is pretty big. If you think things are really, really bad indeed, then the difference is pretty small. The first camp wants the immature bomb-throwers to shut up and let the adults win the election. The second camp thinks the important thing is to wake the sheeple, and if this election is lost it is a small price to pay for the longer term objective of saving the republic (if that is still possible).

    I’m going to go all Newt Gingrich on you and reject the premise of your question.

    I think things are really, really bad indeed, and I think the difference is huge.  I think losing this election is the surest way to establish Obamacare in law forever, and hardly sets us on the path of waking up the electorate or saving the republic: I think an effective executive who is bold but knows how to be incremental will accomplish much more than a Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, let alone a Trump.

    So I’ll take an “adult” who’s actually accomplished something over “bomb-throwers” who haven’t shown they know how to do anything but throw bombs.  And I absolutely reject the idea that this means I’m in any way less concerned about the condition of our country.

    • #5
  6. John Hanson Thatcher
    John Hanson
    @JohnHanson

    Size of Federal government:

    1) It does the 18 enumerated powers and NOTHING else.

    2) With respect to commerce clause it applies ONLY to goods or services that actually cross a state or national boundary, it never applies to commerce within any one state.

    3) All disbursements from the Federal Treasury whether in cash or kind shall be to pay for goods or services delivered to the Federal government only, there shall be no other form of transfer payments whatsoever.

    4) No regulation shall have any effect until it shall be approved by a specific majority vote of both houses of congress.

    5) The president (and his family and retainers)  shall not use government resources for any private purpose ever. And private and public purposes may never under an circumstances be mixed.

    6) Supreme Court judges serve for a single term of 16 years or until they reach the age of 80, whichever occurs first.

    7) Any decision of the supreme court may be overridden by a 2/3rds vote of both houses of congress, occurring within 10 years of the affected decision.

    8) No congress person shall have a staff larger than 5 persons for any  purpose whatsoever, and may not use volunteer labor for any government purpose.

    9) Congress may not delegate any legislative authority to an executive agency.  Regulations shall receive no deference of any kind.

    10) Any child born of at least one US citizen shall have natural born status, without regard to where the birth occurs, except upon reaching the age of 18 years, any person who has dual citizenship rights shall declare which nation state citizenship they will maintain, and no citizen of the United States shall retain dual citizenship.

    11) No child born in the US or one of its territories or possessions without  at least one citizen parent shall be a US citizen, and no advantage or right of citizenship shall accrue to said child.

    12) No one shall vote in any Federal election without providing bio-metric proof of identification.  No vote shall count unless the ID provided is valid.  No vote by mail or absentee shall be counted unless bio-metric proof of identity is also provided. A vote validation system shall prevent any multiple vote.

    13) No person shall vote in any Federal election, if that person is receiving any form of Federal compensation, wages of private employees of companies providing services to the Federal Government excluded.

    Given all of numbers 1-13 then I think  $1500 per person would be right (3.5 x 10^8 * 1.5 x 10^3 = 7 x 10^11 or $525 billion per year.

    As for regulations,   excluding pages that repeal existing  regulations,  0.00001 pages per person per year, or  3500 pages per year.

    My approach: Vote for the most conservative person available, who is not a Democrat in any primary election, and vote in the general election for the member of the two largest parties who is NOT a democrat.

    • #6
  7. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    As an offhand thought, the “throw bombs to wake the Sheeple” idea seems … well, whenever I hear it, I fully expect the next person to tell me that “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” I’m deeply suspicious of anything redolent of the idea that we must provoke the (inevitable) crisis because these sheeplike masses will never make the Revolution otherwise. The masses rarely make a good revolution when thus provoked.

    I’m otherwise of the opinion that things are extremely bad — although I don’t think “how bad” can be quantified. I don’t believe this is “acceptable and sustainable, long-term.” I don’t know how long it will take to collapse on itself — or if it will. No one really knows. But given that this is an unknown, I think the most temperamentally conservative position to adopt is, “We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and should try to get back out of it no faster than we got into it.” It took more than half a century to grow this Behemoth, and I suspect any realistic, sustainable, and safe plan to shrink it is at least a half-century project.

    My instincts — and really, they can be no more than that — are that a) things are really quite bad, and that b) the importance of the presidency is overstated (I seem to recall three branches of government?) and c) that some of the GOP candidates would be significantly better for my country than Hillary.

    I’m also doubtful about measuring “normal” as you have — by “ignoring world war.” It seems deliberately blind not to notice that the graphs start in 1945. What else started then? The Cold War was real, as are the coming century’s geopolitical conflicts, and it would be hard to convince me this trend is unconnected. (I’m open to the argument, as always.)

    • #7
  8. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Leigh: So I’ll take an “adult” who’s actually accomplished something over “bomb-throwers” who haven’t shown they know how to do anything but throw bombs. And I absolutely reject the idea that this means I’m in any way less concerned about the condition of our country.

    OK. I didn’t mean to imply that either camp had a monopoly on concern.

    Any thoughts on how small the government ought to be? Or how small it can be in 4 or 8 years, with a proven ‘do-er’ at the helm? Let’s say Obama leaves us with 80k pages and $11k/person in expenditure. Excluding the pages dealing with repealing regulations, what sized Federal Register would you score as a win? What outlay would you be celebrating as Pres Walker hands over to Pres Jindal in 9 years’ time? Bush II levels? Clinton I? Johnson?

    • #8
  9. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I’m deeply suspicious of anything redolent of the idea that we must provoke the (inevitable) crisis because these sheeplike masses will never make the Revolution otherwise. The masses rarely make a good revolution when thus provoked.

    This.

    I simply don’t buy the idea that if we somehow just let things crash, it would be better on the other side.  Nothing in history or human nature teaches us that.  We forget how bad much the rest of the world is, and how much worse it could be here: in America, we still have it pretty good.

    • #9
  10. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I agree with Claire and Leigh.  Bomb throwing is not going to solve this problem. And I hate to tell you, but “smaller government” is not the slogan that is going to win elections.  A whole package that points that way might.  In other words, the unsustainable national debt should be a big item in the campaign.  Everybody understands that is a terrible thing, especially younger people, who we want to capture as voters.  We’ve got the specter of Greece there to help us make that point.

    I heard the author of a book about Millennials on Dennis Prager yesterday.  She said that she’s found in talking with many of them that they agree with most of the points that lead to smaller government, but if you actually say those words to them–smaller government– they are a bit puzzled.  They’ve been raised to see government as a solution.  We know that isn’t the case, often it’s the problem, but you have to take them where they are.  So put the campaign in terms that lead to smaller government and their ultimate welfare, but for heaven’s sake, don’t go around yelling “small government”.  It is too abstract.

    Instead of small government bomb throwing, tell stories about how to solve our national problems that generally will be small government solutions, but put it in terms people can understand and agree with.  Most of them dislike Obamacare because it costs them more money.  Great–so let’s have a small government solution to that.  They hate Social Security because it costs them and won’t be there for them. So let’s find a way to gradually raise the age and privatize their accounts so that they will benefit.  They tend to care about freedom, so let’s talk about religious freedom.

    My kids are in this age range and they have found that many of their friends don’t know about the people whose religious freedom have been trampled on, thanks to one-sided media.  Let’s be sure they know those stories.  Let’s make the case to the African-American and Hispanic populations that they have not been helped under Obama, and they won’t be under Hillary because–lots of things–regulation kills jobs, identity politics just pits us all against one another, and so on.  Most of them think we need voter ID.  Let’s send our people into every corner of the land registering everybody, even those who aren’t likely to vote for us, and then make our case for the integrity of the vote and national sovereignty on the borders.  We’ve got the wind at our backs on the evils of sanctuary cities.  Talk about small and local, even sustainability. That’s a buzzword now. All of this is much more effective than bomb throwing.  Tell the stories, show the problems, and present the solutions.  Then you can win elections and eventually have your small government.

    • #10
  11. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    genferei: Any thoughts on how small the government ought to be? Or how small it can be in 4 or 8 years, with a proven ‘do-er’ at the helm?

    It depends on what the country is willing to accept, and what kind of Senate they choose to elect.

    Walker said he’d like to go back to Reagan-era tax levels, or something like that.  That’s probably a marker for what he’d like to do.

    I’m not going to try to put numbers on it.  If I imagine President Walker, and imagine he got to take the Wisconsin state Senate and Supreme Court to Washington (which sadly he can’t), I’d be optimistic about Obamacare repeal and tax and entitlement reform along the lines of Paul Ryan’s model.  The Dept of Ed isn’t abolished, but the NCLB mandates are largely gone.  Federal funding of education stays essentially flat.

    As for regulations, the EPA gets a major slap-down.  I’d expect a President Walker to systematically end the most onerous job-killing regulations, but to do it with an eye to politics.  Congress would probably pass a law requiring approval for regulations with a certain impact, and he’d sign it.

    That’s probably the best-case scenario before us, under any Republican candidate.

    • #11
  12. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    The sheeple are wide awake in their own, low-information way, and Romney was correct that 47% of them (or more) care about their bread and circuses rather than their liberty.  And unless that changes (I have my doubts) the country is in really bad shape.

    The Whinos can throw bombs at the Republican “Establishment” from now until the cows come home, but it won’t do a thing to address the real problem.  I’m not sure that things can get better; at least not until after they get much worse.  The sheeple will not change course until we get Carteresque 20% inflation and 15% unemployment.  They certainly will not change course just because Republicans immolate each other in the primaries.

    • #12
  13. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I’m also doubtful about measuring “normal” as you have — by “ignoring world war.” It seems deliberately blind not to notice that the graphs start in 1945. What else started then? The Cold War was real, as are the coming century’s geopolitical conflicts, and it would be hard to convince me this trend is unconnected. (I’m open to the argument, as always.)

    USMilitarySpending-per-capita

    Here’s a little chart I threw together to help us answer that. Using constant 2011 US dollars military expenditure per capita seems, between the rampings up and the peace dividends, to be about $2000, from the start of the Cold War to the abandonment of the Middle East.

    • #13
  14. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    A: Smaller. Not smaller than projections, not smaller than somebody else’s. Smaller.

    • #14
  15. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @IWalton

    Do we have any studies on whether Federal regulations do more good than harm?   Is it possible for Washington regulators to police 330 million of the earth’s most diverse people, largest economy, the most globalized  and which changes daily, especially if regulators actually figure something out?   I don’t know why the answer is not obvious.

    • #15
  16. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Claire says:

    I’m deeply suspicious of anything redolent of the idea that we must provoke the (inevitable) crisis because these sheeplike masses will never make the Revolution otherwise.

    It’s more that, unless the universe of public discourse is widened, the (often quite rationally) low information voter will be led to assume that, for example, it really is evil to oppose amnesty, or to call for budget cuts, or to be concerned about limits on government power. Which leads, as we know from European experience, to only the evil talking about immigration. That does not end well.

    The loony left gets to say all sorts of things about capitalism and racism and the general awfulness of the West. Somehow that ends up bolstering the drift of the electorate ever leftward. But as soon as someone on the right starts talking about matters of principle they are told to stop being so awfully gauche lest they frighten the horses.

    The century-long march of progressivism to domination of this country and its institutions had its path smoothed by decades of rhetorical bomb-throwing. The march back requires the same tactics.

    • #16
  17. liberal jim Inactive
    liberal jim
    @liberaljim

    IN DEFENSE OF BOMB THROWERS.

    One should first remember that it is no stretch to say the country was founded by “bomb throwers.”

    It is my view that the last four Presidents have been failures and were more or less elected as the least bad, of two bad choices.

    I have little doubt that most of the establishment candidates will simply let the FG get bigger and more corrupt at a slightly slower pace than a Democrat.  A possible exception might be Walker.  (he just might be a bomb thrower)

    Obama was elected because Bush and the Republicans failed miserably.  I know liberal policies were to blame for 70% of it, but these go along establishment types not only failed to reverse these policies, but partially embraced them.(the ownership society).  They completely forgot about implementing conservative policies.

    My view is if another establishment type is nominated, the FG will get bigger and more corrupt at slightly slower place, things will blow up again and we will have another Obama.

    Frankly, I think things have gotten so bad a bomb thrower is the countries only hope.

    How small should the government be.  Were in no danger of not having enough of it , by any measurement, any time in the foreseeable future.

    • #17
  18. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Robert McReynolds: Well, I don’t know if I could come up with answers to fit your formula, but in general the size of the government should be able to do five things 1) Protect international shipping lanes 2) Protect the country from outside threats 3) Conduct trade agreements on behalf of US businesses 4) Conduct diplomacy on behalf of the American people 5) Ensure that the federal highways and waterways (airways might have to be included too) are safe, efficient, and modern That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  All other things that our government is doing can and should be done in the states.

    No court system?

    • #18
  19. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Doesn’t the content of the federal register matter more than the size? Doesn’t what we are spending our money on matter more than how much?

    • #19
  20. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Ball Diamond Ball: A: Smaller. Not smaller than projections, not smaller than somebody else’s. Smaller.

    So if we spend $1 less next year and remove a few conjunctions from the federal register you’ll be happy? Or we could just slash the military budget by 90% – that would make government smaller.

    What meaningless twaddle.

    • #20
  21. user_966256 Member
    user_966256
    @BobThompson

    John Hanson: My approach: Vote for the most conservative person available, who is not a Democrat in any primary election, and vote in the general election for the member of the two largest parties who is NOT a democrat.

    I deal with this issue by looking at functions performed (this should track enumerated powers with strict construction of necessary and proper) rather than numbers of regulations and dollars spent (which will be reduced with disappearance of inappropriate functions).

    I like the approach in the above quote with the addition of a provision for electability when voting in primaries, i.e. the candidate needs to draw a majority of independent voters and conservative Democrats , if there are any. At present, I’m liking Walker for this in the POTUS Campaign.

    A point I’ve been thinking about. Does it make sense for those of us who favor smaller federal government to concentrate more on electing federal legislators who will work for this concept? There are majorities across the states of governors and state legislatures that lean this way. If a successful move can be made in this direction, a Convention of States might be a possibility as a final resort.

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I think the most temperamentally conservative position to adopt is, “We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and should try to get back out of it no faster than we got into it.” It took more than half a century to grow this Behemoth, and I suspect any realistic, sustainable, and safe plan to shrink it is at least a half-century project.

    I had never thought of it quite that way, but those are wise words.

    One problem with doing gradualist reforms is that every time somebody proposes a change to reverse the growth of government and head back in the direction of constitutionally limited government, the majority of those conservatives who comment on the internet and who pay any attention at all to your suggestion will suggest going all Vladimir Lenin on us – throwing everything out and restarting from scratch.  It’s happened already in this comment thread.  And it happens EVERY TIME.

    So basically, those people who you’d expect to be ideologically inclined to provide the strongest support for any such reforms are the first to sabotage any suggestion of it, because it doesn’t go back instantly to the original enumerated powers.   With enemies like that, socialists don’t need any friends.

    • #22
  23. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Jamie Lockett:

    Ball Diamond Ball: A: Smaller. Not smaller than projections, not smaller than somebody else’s. Smaller.

    So if we spend $1 less next year and remove a few conjunctions from the federal register you’ll be happy? Or we could just slash the military budget by 90% – that would make government smaller.

    What meaningless twaddle.

    Thank you for sharing your opinion with the class.

    • #23
  24. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The Reticulator: One problem with doing gradualist reforms is that every time somebody proposes a change to reverse the growth of government and head back in the direction of constitutionally limited government…

    Can you identify some of these changes? Were they actually defeated by the howls of the Lenins of liberty? If so, why is that howls from the right sabotage gradualist reforms whereas howls from the left encourage leftward movement?

    • #24
  25. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Bob Thompson: Does it make sense for those of us who favor smaller federal government to concentrate more on electing federal legislators who will work for this concept? There are majorities across the states of governors and state legislatures that lean this way.

    This is an excellent point. What work is being done in the States to shrink government / increase liberty / establish a new normal that could serve as a model for Federal legislators (and Presidents and judges, come to that)?

    • #25
  26. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Does anybody here think that the size of government will go down by even one dollar?  Or that the size of the federal register will be reduced by even  one page?

    • #26
  27. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Ball Diamond Ball: Thank you for sharing your opinion with the class.

    Thank you for providing no substance as usual.

    • #27
  28. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    genferei: Can you identify some of these changes? Were they actually defeated by the howls of the Lenins of liberty? If so, why is that howls from the right sabotage gradualist reforms whereas howls from the left encourage leftward movement?

    Here is a good example:

    Ball Diamond Ball: Does anybody here think that the size of government will go down by even one dollar?  Or that the size of the federal register will be reduced by even  one page?

    • #28
  29. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    I prioritize attacking the administrative state first. The main reason I’m still a Walker man is that he done this in the face of concerted and capable opposition. I believe that this helps suppress the perpetual government growth machine.

    The Bush 43 and Obama eras have seen the worst of both worlds: high levels of federal spending and regulation. At least Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton oversaw some restraint on one or the other.

    • #29
  30. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Jamie Lockett:

    genferei: Can you identify some of these changes? Were they actually defeated by the howls of the Lenins of liberty? If so, why is that howls from the right sabotage gradualist reforms whereas howls from the left encourage leftward movement?

    Here is a good example:

    Ball Diamond Ball: Does anybody here think that the size of government will go down by even one dollar? Or that the size of the federal register will be reduced by even one page?

    What gradualist policy proposal has been sabotaged by BDB? Was it an intemperate comment on Ricochet that prevented the GOP-dominated House from attaching any sort of gradualist rider to the February 2012 debt-ceiling raise?

    • #30
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