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– Why it has gotten so.

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Over the last 100 years the federal government has grown by leaps and bounds. The impetus for this is probably economic related (e.g., “The Great Depression,” and today’s world economy), and military related (including two world wars, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, numerous minor engagements, and the War on Terror). We also have several years of presidential campaigns heaped in where we were promised a lot more than two chickens in every pot or two cars in every garage. This has all changed the face of our government where we now have several more agencies and departments to deliver on presidential promises. For example, during my lifetime alone we have seen the introduction of several cabinet posts, such as HUD, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, EPA, and Homeland Security.

There are essentially two theories as to why government expands: that it is driven by citizen demand, or it is self-generating, that it grows naturally by itself. I tend to believe in the latter as I see it as an excellent example of Parkinson’s Law in action. The law, which was devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, a noted British historian and author was based on his experience with the British Civil Service. Among his key observation’s was that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Basically, he suggests people make work in order to rationalize their employment. Consequently, managers create bureaucracies and superfluous work to justify their existence, not because it is really needed (aka, the “making mountains our of mole hills” phenomenon).

We see examples of Parkinson’s Law in just about every government body, from federal to state, to municipal, to the smallest bodies of government, including Homeowner Associations. A few years ago I was President of my Homeowners Association where I was able to balance the budget, update their governing docs, and streamline their administrative affairs. It wasn’t hard, it just required a little common sense, nothing more, nothing less. Since I left the board of directors though, spending has gone through the roof, and we are now paying more for dues and getting a lot less in return. As I see it, my Homeowners Association is a microcosm of the problems with government; paying more and getting less. To illustrate, the only visible government services that impacts me directly are roads, water and sewage, the police, and education. Everything else is transparent to me. Others might include welfare, housing, and the environment, but I think this is the exception as opposed to the rule for most people. In other words, the average person sees little in return for the taxes they pay.

Then we come to the old argument as to whether government should be more or less intrusive in our lives which is actually a political argument. There are those who say we need more government since the average citizen is not smart enough to control his/her own destiny, and there are others who want less government control and more freedom. Understand this, the government grew over the last 100 years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. So political ideologue has no real bearing in this regard. It is simply a matter of management (or the lack thereof).

Recognizing companies were becoming bloated and inefficient, executives began to flatten corporate hierarchies in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The poster child for this was Jack Welsh of General Electric who earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” for his ability to flatten G.E. units. Welsh’s approach was reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s purges which came in waves of three: the first was to eliminate the deadwood from around the office, representing the people who were the most expendable; the second wave of purges represented a major belt tightening effort intended to find out who the company could live without, and finally; the third wave was the hardest as it required considerable soul-searching but uncovered the bedrock of the corporation. What was left was a more efficient organization that was more focused on the right priorities.

Now imagine if we did something like this to our government; it would force a lot of bureaucrats out of office, it would create a leaner and more streamlined government, and it would force them to concentrate on the services that truly matter.

But for some reason I think most people like a fat government. They like having someone looking over their shoulder, kind of like a security blanket. As I found in my homeowner association though, the price of a bloated government is more expensive, more bureaucratic, and provides less service. I guess it comes down to how dependent we want to be on government and whether we trust their judgment to maintain our interests. As for me, I vote for less government, not more. Here’s another way of looking at it: should the government serve its constituents, or should the constituents serve the government? You tell me.

First published: December 1, 2008

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 40 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:   timbryce.com

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NEXT UP:  THE SWEETENING OF AMERICA – Whether we are aware of it or not, our tastes are changing.


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Tim is a writer and management consultant located in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.


  • Peg Nichols

    Who said “people make rational decisions”? Just finished reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, about the intertwined lives of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two behavioral psychologists, the latter of whom won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Economics? Yes. And now, from The Unbanking of America, author Lisa Servon writes, “Behavioral economists have joined the conversation about financial inclusion in recent years, adding insight into how people make decisions about money; people are not the ‘rational actors’ that classical economists imagine them to be”. At this point it’s only historical speculation, but I wonder which of the founding fathers believed that people make rational decisions. Was it Jefferson?

  • Don Frankel

    Inside government it is known as empire building. You run around adding things and build a little empire for yourself. But I’ve got a more simple explanation. The more the government spends, the more the “friends of the elected” get paid in big government contracts and the more they can give to the elected.

  • Peg – Thanks for your note. Don’t forget, back then it was only white, male land owners they were concerned about (and could vote).
    Don – Yep. Parkinson’s Law has taken effect fueled by politicians who want to be re-elected.
    All the Best,

  • Everyone,

    I think you all make good points. Or, at least, ones with which I agree! Ha.


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