There is no more saddening picture of the progress of government than this one (the second & third most depressing graphs are here):
This is the amount of money the federal government spent in the name of each citizen, adjusted for inflation so that everything is in constant dollars (the base year of 2008 matters not; 2013 is an official forecast, and therefore too low). There is no one picture which can capture the inexorable rise of Leviathan, but this one is satisfactory.
Each dollar spent is a dollar taken from a citizen or created from vapor, but each requires management and an apparatus for agreement, acquiescence, and distribution between citizens and government. If the federal government were as small now as it was in 1901, it would today spend $169 for each citizen; this would imply a budget of around $59 billion. Customs duties would have paid for half of that. There would be no need of income tax. It spends $11,630 now.
The government is sixty-six times larger now than in 1901. Sixty-six times more intrusive, sixty-six times more bureaucratic and Byzantine, sixty-six times more pervasive. The trend is accelerating. It increased fifty-percent over the last decade. It shows no sign of stopping.
The counterargument will be, “Sure, the government was small in 1901. That’s because X wasn’t around.” “X” will be substituted for the interlocutor’s favorite redistribution program, which he sees as absolutely necessary. Every redistribution program is claimed to be absolutely necessary by somebody, even the programs which haven’t yet been implemented. Threaten any and the redistribution program’s advocates start making sounds like Ned Beatty against a tree.
There are lessons in the curve’s shape. The two early peaks, for you graduates of public school, were the results of World War I and its exciting sequel. President Wilson’s (D) goading succeeded finally in bringing America into The Great War, but only at its finale, so spending was limited. However, F.D.R. (D) ensured full participation in WWII; spending ramped up to $8,246 per citizen in 1944. That’s $33,000 for a family of four. Recall these are modern-day dollars.
The victorious country recovered, and government shrank—but only for a moment. In 1948 it began its relentless rise, punctuated by the Korean (Harry Truman, D) and Vietnamese (Lyndon Johnson, D) interludes; however, it would not again reach WWII-levels until George H.W. Bush (R) in 1990 who brought us Iraq I.
Think about this. Under Bush Senior, it was as if the entire country were mobilized as it was in WWII, at least in the sense of government insinuating its tentacles into people’s lives—food and fuel rationing, “temporary” housing shortage measures, government spying on citizens and neighbors on each other. Big Brother had justifiable cause in the war: we were attacked. There was no external threat in Bush Senior’s time; instead, arguments for increase came from within, marshaled in the search for perfection and from the conviction that only America could and should police the world.
There was a minor respite at the end of Bill Clinton’s (D) second term and into Bush Junior’s (R) first, but then came another war. Actually two wars, which are still being fought. Nobody knows why. Finally, The One (D) slouched his way to D.C., and the spigots widened into cataracts. Once Obamacare hits fully, the curve will jump like a frightened cat to levels unknown.
Knowing this, the call is for still more spending, more programs, more regulation, more federal laws. The call comes from us citizens just as much as it does from government.
The capital “D”s and “R”s were included only to show that party affiliation means little when it comes to making war or in creating new ways to spend. The same would be true if we examined the effect of majorities in the Senate and House.
Herbert Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This curve cannot go on forever; thus, the spending must top out. The mistake will be thinking of this curve in terms of money as a physical object instead of as a proxy for the size of government. Money, being fictional, is itself only a proxy representing agreements between people—between citizens, betweens citizens and government employees, and between citizens and foreigners.
The money-trust proxy has broken many times in many places—money became worthless when governments overreached—so it is rational to assume it will break again. The trick is predicting when.
Update In a nice coincidence CNS News has this story (saw it on Drudge). I’m delighted their numbers match mine to within a couple hundred bucks in 2012 (they had $11,300, I $11,630).
To regular readers. My logo, as it were, is in the picture because I have noticed an increasing number of uncredited hot-linking of images produced here.
Update I’ll have the just-as-depressing GDP plots tomorrow (Tuesday). Too busy to do them today. And if I gave that much bad news two days in a row I’d worry about reader suicides.