Incredibly, the Federal Government Is Actually Shrinking

We are starting to get the big picture of what has happened to the federal government this year. Mostly, it is a beautiful thing to see. It’s not a free America yet. Far from it. But some progress has been made against the amazing bloat that the federal government has experienced for the last one-hundred years.

Consider just this one number discovered in an investigation by the Washington Post. Since Trump took office, 16,000 people who used to have happy, comfy, semi-permanent jobs with the federal government have since moved on with their lives, getting jobs in the private sector. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much given the 1.9 million people who remain as your masters and mine, but it is a start and absolutely worth noting.

Check out this revealing chart published by the Washington Post.

The president loves to claim credit for everything, really anything, that happens, whether he intended it or not. So this change has earned him some (more) bragging rights. But if you think back to the campaign, the promise to drive bureaucrats from D.C. was not central. He did promise to cut waste, fraud, and abuse but that promise is standard fare for every political candidate. He was supposed to be a new kind of Republican who found all kinds of uses for federal power: stopping immigration, keeping out foreign products, cracking down on drugs, building a wall, expanding the military, and so on.

What’s actually happened amounts to a perfect storm that ends up doing precisely what many libertarians and conservatives having been hoping, and working for, for over many decades.

1. Big government is out of ideas and out of money. Obama came into town with a strong belief in the power of government to do wonderful things for the country. But after eight years of increased regulation and micromanagement, all we ended up with was economic stagnation. This created a revenue squeeze and mass public discontent. You look around today and you see that all the cool stuff comes not from government but from the private sector. Actually that has been true for decades. It’s been the libertarians who have worked to explain this and defend this. All the other side has had to say is: make government bigger, more imposing, more powerful. Who really believes that is the answer anymore/?

2. Demoralization of the G-Men. Public sector employees tend not to favor cuts in government. They go for protocol, dignity, rules, and respect for the authority of bureaucracy. The experience of the Trump presidency has not been conducive to feeding that sense. He comes from real estate, marketing, and public relations, not a stodgy public-policy background. In fact, he has struggled against bureaucracy his entire life. The Washington Post reports that career bureaucrats have had a feeling of sickness in working for a machine of which Trump is head (and let us not forget that 90% of what we call the government exists under the authority of the executive branch). This is all to the good.

3. Unfulfilled positions. A major responsibility of any new president is to appoint 650 people to head all the top spots in agencies, subject to Senate confirmation. Hilariously, Trump just has not been that interested in doing this. It turns out that nothing in the rule books suggests that he has he to. He doesn’t want to risk hearings and has no interest in the vetting process. So his inaction has left two thirds of these positions empty. This means that many agencies have empty offices. Career employees are taking over temporarily but sensing their vulnerability, they are afraid to do anything. No one really wants to go to work when there is nothing much to do, not even government bureaucrats. “You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers,” an OSHA employee told the Post.

4. Fear of coming budget cuts. The new Congress hasn’t really passed a budget but the rumors are flying of more cuts coming around the corner. Many people figure that they are going to be driven out in 2018 in any case, so they are rushing toward the exits while they can get the best alternative jobs they can. The expected future has been discounted to the present.

5. New levels of oversight has everyone scared. Reporters are hounding every aspect of the Trump administration every day, looking for any missteps to blame on the new president. It could be too much spent on travel, some misfiled forms, some missing money, some claims of sexual harassment, anything to make the Trump government look bad. This has everyone in public service spooked to the point that they just want out. “Some careerists feel paralyzed,” said Reginald Wells who bailed from Social Security Administration. “They don’t want to make a mistake.” To me, this is a hilarious turn of events.

Government Is Old Fashioned

This really does make you wonder what the future holds. Not many regulations are really being repealed. They could end up just not being enforced. There is an aspect of government that is not unlike private industry: if you are not growing, you are shrinking. Bureaucracy really does need to be fed. If it is not, it begins to wither. It is too early to say that this is what is happening but there are some very good signs.

The last time I was in D.C. (last month) something struck me as never before. The entire place is premised on the idea that what is awesome about life is entirely physical. Massive buildings. Huge stone and marble columns. Real estate. Monuments. Everything in this not-normal city is about gigantic, imposing, intimidating structures. It's all about place and power over place. You can drive block after block and observe nothing but unimaginative and scary buildings with uniform windows. Honestly, it is awful, dreary, and...old fashioned. 

This used to be normal, even awesome, but we live in a digital age now. People today work from home. They live their lives on their laptops and smartphones. Services are provided through apps. The only aspect of the physical world we remain attached to are the things we choose. Minimalism is chic. We are working to throw away more things, become more mobile, to unclutter, to simplify.

Everything about the institution of government is contrary to the new sense of things. It is an analog institution in a digital age.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) taught us that when enough anomalies appear in a prevailing paradigm, it becomes shaky and vulnerable to being overthrown. We all sense it. Something needs to change. Something will change. Government needs to adapt to the new reality. This is not the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. This is a new century with a new way of doing things. It’s not about legislation, planning, and imposition. It’s about innovation, adaptability, and real bottom-up progress driven by human choice.

May the trends of 2017 toward shrinking the state be just the beginning.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn