What came first, the chicken or the egg? I think I was first asked this philosophical question when I was in grade school. It probably followed the equally deep -- why did the chicken cross the road?
Of course the answer to this question depends on a couple of philosophical or theological choices of the respondent and as far as I know has never been answered with 100% certainty. I don’t intend to enter into that debate, but I would like to re-frame the question into a more political one.
In the United States, what came first, big government or big business?
Our government has grown, that fact is undeniable. For comparison let’s use US census data[i] as our ground truth.
In 1790, the director of the census bureau was Thomas Jefferson (he was also Secretary of State), he had 56 people collecting and compiling the data on the 3,929,214 residents of the 13 states. The cost of that first census was $44,000 or 1.1 cents/person. The government asked it citizens 6 questions revolving around the makeup of each family group (i.e. name of head of household, free white males over 16, under 16, free white females, other free people, and slaves).
In 2010, the director was Robert M. Groves, he had 635,000 people collecting and compiling the data on 308,745,538 residents in the 50 states. The cost had grown to $12,900,000,000.00 ($12.9 billion), or $47.78/person. In an effort to get the word out, they spent $133 million in multi-media advertising in 28 languages, had traveling road shows to things like NASCAR races, ran commercials as part of Super Bowl XLIV (44). Additionally, they awarded Lockheed Martin a $600 million contract to build the 2010 census “Decennial Response Integration System (DRIS).” The census asked 10 questions covering thinks like name, gender, age, race, ethnicity, relationship, and whether you own or rent your home.[ii] To reduce the number of questions previously asked they now conduct an annual “American Community Survey” that seeks information on education, housing, and jobs.
So, just using this one small bureau of the government we see the following “fun facts” as the Census Bureau would say (by the way feel free to check my math).
- Between 1790 and 2010 the US population increased 7,758%
- The people hired to accomplish a single task grew by 1,133,829%
- The cost per capita (cost/person) to complete the census grew 434,264%, but the total cost to perform this one task was 29,318,082% greater in 2010 than 1790.
At the same time the government was growing we moved from an agrarian nation, into a manufacturing giant, aided by a couple of world wars that slowed or destroyed the competition. We are now moving into a service industry where information is king. For example, we saw the airplane industry spawn and grow into around 10 or so major, and a myriad of minor companies from 1903 to the mid-1960s, and now, through government approved consolidation we are down to two major, and a few minor companies today. The car manufacturing industry grew to over a dozen competing brands providing jobs to the nation, and now our domestic base is GM (Chevy, Buick, Cadillac, and GM), and Ford (with Lincoln). All the rest is foreign owned (including Chrysler).
The medical industry in the 1790s was essentially non-existent with barbers doubling as dentists. The doctors were few and far between. Today it is one of the largest industries in the States, with heath care spending exceeding $3.8 trillion each year.
So I come back to the original question. Did government grow to support the population, or did it grow to support the businesses? Personally, I would follow the money and believe if you follow the government growth, and all its regulations/spending you can usually find some industry they are trying to protect, rather than improve the lives of the average man or woman, although that story plays better to the average man or woman on the street.