Monday, April 4, 2011

The Federal Behemoth

Just how big is the federal government?

The government keeps getting bigger and bigger, and there are few who would debate that. There are those, however, who would debate that it matters. Well, does it matter? Let’s see how big the problem is:


How much money the government controls is generally how the size of government is measured. A cynic might simply declare the government controls all the money since they can print it and tax it back. Besides that, there is some debate about how exactly to measure government by defining “spending” and “tax cuts” and so forth. However, if one just wants a fairly straightforward answer, just look to Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, then take your pick as to which figure says it best:

2011 Budget of the United States* (not yet enacted)
Total revenue              $2.17 trillion
Total expenditures      $3.72 trillion
Deficit                         $1.56 trillion

Of course, numbers in the trillions just sound ridiculous to most people. Is it any wonder they tune budget talk out?

*see page 150


The number of employees is also a generally accepted measure of government size. After all, they have to pay these people, so it’s not unrelated to the first measure. As of March 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reported over 2.8 million federal employees. Expect that number to keep growing as Obama develops his Civilian National Security Force. (16:42)


Another way to look at the size of government is by the number of federal agencies. Unfortunately, that number is a bit difficult to ascertain. Each federal department has beneath it a plethora of agencies, bureaus, boards, offices, commissions, programs, government corporations, research and development centers, and permanent diplomatic missions. Many are offices within agencies within departments. As to what constitutes an actual “agency,” it becomes hard to say.

Still, there are some listings. Wikipedia provides a list of over 600 entries in outline form showing how they relate to one another. provides a list 450 strong, with many items not found on the Wikipedia list.


The number of federal laws could be a way to measure government’s size. Actually, the proper measure would be the number of federal crimes. Like the number of agencies (whose regulations carry the weight of law) this is another number difficult to pin down. In 2008, the Heritage Foundation hazarded an estimate of over 4450. If for some reason you think that number is no big deal, keep in mind that under U.S. criminal law, the general rule is that ignorance of the law is not a valid defense to criminal prosecution. Start memorizing!


While not the most useful measurement, one could measure the size of government by area. To that end, states that “the Federal Government owns nearly 650 million acres of land - almost 30 percent of the land area of the United States.” These lands are controlled by no fewer than 9 government entities. What else is there to say? Just look at the map.

I can’t promise this information will help anyone win any debates. Almost any argument declaring oversized government, the average liberal seems all-too-able to pooh-pooh. But just maybe coming at the issue from multiple angles can overwhelm the opposition.

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