“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Louis D. Brandeis in his dissent in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 479 (1928).
Note from the Authors: We normally try to keep each post reasonably short – less than 2000 words. We recognize that our readers have limited time and wish to respect their need for brevity. However, in researching and writing this posting on the growth of government and particularly the growth of the cabinet-level bureaucracy in the Executive branch of government it became painfully obvious that we could not do justice to this important topic in one posting. Therefore, we had to break this posting into two parts. Today’s posting addresses this growth from the founding until 1900. Tomorrow, we will post the second portion of this article which will address growth since 1900 and offer some concrete proposals for managing the cancerous growth overwhelming our society and our government. Thank you for your patience. We believe your perseverance will be rewarded.
The Problem – Too Much Government
Beginning with the founding of our country and through the 1920’s, the average American’s only contact with the federal government was limited to dealing with the local US post office. The founders believed that the federal government should primarily deal with those matters that could not be handled by the individual states. The role of the federal government was seen as quite limited. However, today the federal government impacts nearly every area of our lives. Government is involved in everything including agriculture, business, the labor force, housing, pre-kindergarten through college education, active duty military and defense, retired military, energy production and the most intimate details of our health care. Scarcely any area of our daily life is not influenced in some way by the federal government.
It is important to understand how we have changed from a growing, dynamic country made up of creative individuals seeking to grow and prosper and instead have become a nation of serfs waiting on the government for everything – from housing vouchers to Pell grants, from food stamps to cash for clunkers, from medical care to our retirement income. There is almost no aspect of life that is not either controlled or monitored by the federal government. The government dictates the minutia of life – everything from whether we can pray at high-school footballs games to how our children are taught about sex. Our lives are no longer our own – and most people do not even notice.
Our economy is now only a step away from a state-run economy. This fact is no longer even arguable. One liberal judge, Judge Stanley Marcus of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in writing a minority opinion concerning legal challenges to ObamaCare unwittingly admitted the shocking truth about liberal views on the limits of government power. Judge Marcus wrote that “The majority (of the judges in the 11th Circuit) has ignored the undeniable fact that Congress’ commerce power has grown exponentially over the past two centuries and is now generally accepted as having afforded Congress the authority to create rules regulating large areas of our national economy. “
Anytime resources are taken from the people and given to the government, the overall health of the country and the economy is diminished. This is because tax money is always taken from the productive classes – the innovator, the engineer, the businessman or businesswoman, the entrepreneur or the craftsman, and given to a bureaucrat. The bureaucrat always takes his share, gives a share to a crony, and passes on the remainder in an inefficient and wasteful manner to those who may or may not require it. The larger the government, the more inefficient and wasteful it becomes. When we allow new bureaucracies to flourish, we are sowing the seeds of our own decline and eventual destruction.
It is important to understand the decisions we have made as a nation over the last two hundred years if we are to understand how we have become a nation of serfs – how we have allowed the government control over every aspect of our lives and property. We will begin our journey by looking at only one aspect of government – the role and growth of the federal executive branch usually referred to as the President’s Cabinet or Cabinet of the United States. We will see how uncontrolled growth has occurred and how complacent the citizenry has become. (Future posting will address uncontrolled growth in other areas of government.)
The Proper Role for the Executive Cabinet
The original cabinet of our first President, George Washington, consisted of only four offices. These were a State Department for dealing with foreign governments and affairs, a Treasury department for dealing with government finances, a War department for dealing with national defense, and a Justice Department to deal with enforcement of federal laws.
I have no quarrel with these four initial agencies created by the founders (State, Treasury, Justice, and the War Department). All provide vital and unquestionable federal level functions and services. The War department (which later became the Defense Department) began functioning in 1780. The State, Treasury and Justice departments were created in 1789 and began service with George Washington. Obviously, defense cannot be handled by thirteen (or fifty) individual states nor should international relations that affect the whole country be handled by the individual states. Thus, it is easy to justify a Defense and State department. The Treasury department is also easily justified because a common currency is a necessity for commerce both between the states and with foreign countries. Additionally, the federal government must be able to tax and spend to provide essential federal services and this role is best handled by a Treasury department. The Justice department has an important role in ensuring that the law (as defined by the Constitution) is carried out and that the rights of individual citizens are protected.
The Figure below illustrates the almost exponential growth in the number of cabinet level departments. To understand how our government became so powerful and so intrusive, it is instructive to understand why additional cabinet level offices were created.
A Growing Number of Cabinet Departments
The Post Office was created in 1775 and Benjamin Franklin named as the first Postmaster. The Post Office Department was created in 1792. However, the Postmaster did not become part of the Executive Cabinet until 1829. The Post Office was authorized by the Postal Clause in Article One of the United States Constitution. This clause empowered (but did not require) the Congress to establish post offices and post roads. The Constitution does not require home or business delivery of mail and such service is relatively new in the history of the Post Office department. Political patronage and political spoils have marred much of the history of the department. In September 2010, the Post Office employed approximately 574,000 people and had over 218,000 vehicles. At that time, it was the second largest employer in the United States behind Walmart. In 1971, the Postal Reorganization Act transformed the Post Office into the independent United States Postal Service. Technology has made the Post Office obsolete. While it is an independent organization, it is still subject to Congressional oversight and meddling. Without massive government intervention, the Post Office will likely enter bankruptcy in the next few years. The Post Office provides an excellent example of a federal department that has long outlived its usefulness.
The Interior Department was created some sixty years (1849) after the creation of the Justice, Defense, State, and Treasury departments. Often called “the department of everything else,” the department was primarily responsible for management of federal lands and territories, management of Indian affairs and management of natural resources. The early history of the department provides a good example of federal bureaucracy taking on more and more tasks and influence. The 1840’s were a time of continued territorial expansion and the Mexican war. The Interior Department was created because of the continued growth of bureaucracy in other departments that did not match with the stated mission of those departments. The federal Land Office had little to do with the treasury department where it resided. The Patent Office was in the State Department, the Indian Affairs office in the War Department, and the pension offices in the War and Navy departments. The Interior department was created to house these and many other disparate functions. There were a few who recognized the dangers of such a wide-ranging bureaucracy. John C. Calhoun, always worried by the loss of states rights, declared “This is a monstrous bill. . . . It will turn over the whole interior affairs of the country to this department, and it is one of the greatest steps that has ever been made in my time to absorb all the remaining powers of the States.”
The next three new departments were created between 1889 and 1913 and reflect two movements in American history and politics. These are the growth and impact of the progressive movement and the increased impact of special interest groups on politics. The period from 1880 to 1920 was marked by rapid growth, industrialization and the rise of large corporations and the railroads. Unfortunately, this period was also marked by harsh working conditions with 12 hours days not uncommon. Worker safety was overlooked and poverty was widespread. Big business enjoyed monopolies and cozy relationships with government. Political corruption was widespread particularly at the local level in big cities.
The progressive movement attempted to correct many of these economic and social problems. Progressives addressed issues such as labor reform, improvements in working conditions, health and sanitation, and public corruption as well as the vote for women. Progressives believed that it was the role of government to be an agency for public welfare. Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt intervened on behalf of labor and sought to regulate big business by regulating anti-competitive behavior between businesses. The Progressives believed that national government should have the power to control most aspects of business and industry and believed that it was the responsibility of the central government to rectify various social evils. Progressives were strongly against such concepts as states rights and limited government. The progressive movement was very much responsible for adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution; this amendment called for the direct election of Senators.
By the 1880’s various special interest groups were arguing for special cabinet positions to further their interests. (We will have much more to say about special interest groups in a later series of posts.) Business interests lobbied for creation of a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farm interests wanted a cabinet-level Department of Agriculture (The agency was originally created by Abraham Lincoln in 1862). In 1889 President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level. The Agriculture Department was originally conceived as an aid to farmers and with improving agriculture. It was charged with such tasks as preserving and distributing seeds and plants, collecting crop statistics, and developing pesticides. The agency now concerns itself with such issues as homelessness, distribution of food, securing loans for farmers, farm exports and overseas aid. In 1862 farmers made up more than 90 percent of the population. By 1890, this number had fallen to approximately 43 percent of the population. Today, less than 1 percent of the population can be classified as farmers. This is clearly an organization whose time has passed. However, few in our political class consider this bureaucracy irrelevant.
Tomorrow – We will address the continued growth of bureaucracy and present a proposal for limiting the growth of the Executive branch.