What drives “big government”?

I recently ran across an interesting article published in The Journal of Politics in 1985. Two of my former professors from the University of Iowa (Michael Lewis-Beck and Tom Rice) examined factors that lead to growth in the U.S. government during the 20th century (1932-1980). Several potential explanations that they tested include 1) war-time military build-up, 2) economic hardship, 3) foreign trade, 4) demographic change, 5) Democrats in control of government, 6) demand from the mass public, and others.

They find that all these factors play a role in increasing the size of the U.S. government and its associated bureaucracy. However, the war-time build-up and foreign trade explanations received the most support. They write:

A maxim of American politics is that peace and a prosperous economy elect presidents. We would add another: war and an open economy expand government.

I think this is interesting because a strong military and laissez-faire economic policies are two goals favored strongly by the Tea Party and conservative Republicans, popularly seen as traditional opponents of “big government.”

Their paper is accessible here:


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