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Growth of the Bureaucracy

  • Bureaucracy grew slowly before Civil War, but then expanded quickly in 20th century
  • Federal bureaucracy has shrunk, as percentage of national workforce, since 1970
  • But government subcontracting to private firms has recently grown rapidly

Franz Kafka, when he was not busy contemplating his thorax, wrote some pretty interesting things about government, including the rather bleak observation that "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."4

Slime? Yuck. But does that Kafkaesque description really fit the United States? That depends on how quickly you think a revolution evaporates.

Our federal bureaucracy did not follow so fast on the heels of our revolution. The Constitution drafted in 1787 created only a Congress, a president, and a Supreme Court. But it also provided Congress with considerable legislative authority, and the power to do "whatever was necessary and proper" to complete its legislative responsibilities. This meant that Congress had not only the power to pass laws, but also to create the departments, agencies, and commissions needed to manage those laws.

This power was exercised almost immediately after the ratification of the constitution; in 1789, Congress created the Department of Foreign Affairs (quickly renamed the State Department) to assist the president in conducting foreign policy. But for the next half century, the federal bureaucracy grew slowly. On the eve of the Civil War, the federal government employed only 36,000 people—and most of them were postal workers. But thereafter, the number of government workers grew steadily, and then mushroomed during the Great Depression and World War II. Today, some 500 departments, agencies, and commissions make up the federal bureaucracy, together employing about 2.7 million people (if you include the postal service).

Yes and no. On the one hand, the number of federal employees has been relatively constant since the 1970s (holding steady at a little less than three million). As a result, the federal bureaucracy has actually shrunk as a percentage of the nation's total workforce over the past 40 years.5 But on the other hand, the number of persons indirectly employed by the federal government has grown dramatically as more and more federal dollars are funneled to state and local governments and to private firms working on government contracts. One scholar estimates that there are about 12 million people employed indirectly by the federal government.6

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