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Government and the Economy, The Scope of Government in the U.S. Economy

Federal revenues, different branches of government, economic decisions, democratic elections, market system

The size of the government sector in the U.S. economy increased dramatically during the 20th century. Federal revenues totaled less than 5 percent of total GDP in the early 1930s. In 1995 they made up 22 percent. State, county, and local government revenues represent an additional 15 percent of GDP.

Although overall government revenues and spending are somewhat lower in the United States than they are in many other industrialized market economies, it is still important to consider why the size of government has increased so rapidly during the 20th century. The general answer is that the citizens of the United States have elected representatives who have voted to increase government spending on a variety of programs and to approve the taxes required to pay for these programs.

Actually, government spending has increased since the 1930s for a number of specific reasons. First, the different branches of government began to provide services that improved the economic security of individuals and families. These services include Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, as well as health care, food stamps, and subsidized housing programs for low-income families. In addition, new technology increased the cost of some government services; for example, sophisticated new weapons boosted the cost of national defense. As the economy grew, so did demand for the government to provide more and better transportation services, such as super highways and modern airports. As the population increased and became more prosperous, demand grew for government-financed universities, museums, parks, and arts programs. In other words, as incomes rose in the United States, people became more willing to be taxed to support more of the kinds of programs that government agencies provide.

Social changes have also contributed to the growing role of government. As the structure of U.S. families changed, the government has increasingly taken over services that were once provided mainly by families. For instance, in past times, families provided housing and health care for their elderly. Today, extended families with several generations living together are rare, partly because workers move more often than they did in the past to take new jobs. Also the elderly live longer today than they once did, and often require much more sophisticated and expensive forms of medical care. Furthermore, once the government began to provide more services, people began to look to the government for more support, forming special interest groups to push their demands.

Some people and groups in the United States favor further expansion of government programs, while others favor sharp reductions in the current size and scope of government. Reliance on a market system implies a limited role for government and identifies fairly specific kinds of things for the government to do in the economy. Private households and businesses are expected to make most economic decisions. It is also true that if taxes and other government revenues take too large a share of personal income, incentives to work, save, and invest are diminished, which hurts the overall performance of the economy. But these general principles do not establish precise guidelines on how large or small a role the government should play in a market economy. Judging the effectiveness of any current or proposed government program requires a careful analysis of the additional benefits and costs of the program. And ultimately, of course, the size of government is something that U.S. citizens decide through democratic elections.

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