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Scoping the Size: How Big Should
Government Be?
Colin Talbot
Professor of Government
University of Manchester
How can we measure Government?
• Treasure
• Organisation
• Authority
• Nodality
Christopher Hood’s “NATO” model of ‘tools of government’
Problems of Comparison
• Gotten a lot easier in recent years
– Big efforts from OECD, UN, etc
• But still major issues about
• definitions
– E.g. “civil service”
• And reliability
Treasure
• For OECD countries, general government
expenditure ranges from about 35% (e.g. USA) to
55% (e.g. Sweden) of GDP
• A couple of outliers at lower end >30% – e.g. Korea, Mexico)
• Average is about 42%
• Despite all the reform efforts of last 30 years,
hasn’t changed very much
UK, USA, Sweden
government spending as % GDP in the 20th century
Are emerging countries
going to follow same
trajectory?
UK public spending as % GDP
Av. 42.6%
+/-
4%
Sources: HM Treasury PESA and OBR
What do we spend it on?
Spending as %GDP
(2006)
Source: OECD
What?
• Big variations:
• Social Protection: Korea 3.7% GDP, Sweden 22.7%
• Defence: USA 4.3%; UK 2.5%; Germany 1.1%
• And surprises:
• Health: UK 7.1%; USA 7.7%
• Expenditures on health and education generally similar
Organisation
• Public employment (as % of workforce) ranges from
about 10% to about 25% in OECD countries
• Again, this has changed very little over past 3
decades.
• Interesting variations: e.g. Norway spends 40% GDP
with 28% workforce; UK 43% and 15%.
What is this?
Pompeii
This is the almost 2,000 year old ‘mensa ponderaria’ or the public weights and measures table in
Pompeii. This was used to check the accuracy of the measures of the merchants who sold their
products in the forum.
The weights and measures table has 9 holes and these can be seen in the picture. Each hole was
equal to a measure and the merchants in Pompeii had to abide by these measures. Each of these
measuring holes had a perforated bottom so that the product being measured would pass through.
They would pass through to be collected and the trays that did this can be seen in the picture below
the table.
The weights and measures table was first used by the Oscans before the Romans came to Pompeii.
When the Romans arrived they modified the measures and this is recorded in an inscription which
can be seen in the picture on the front of the table. The inscription reads:
'Aulus Clodius Flaccus son of Aulus, Numerius Arcaeus Arellianus son of
Numerius, Duovirs with the power of law, gave this by the decree of the
Decurians for the measures to be equaled out.'
Authority
• Measuring the extent of government “authority” – usually seen
in the degree of regulation – is very problematic
• It has to include formal authority – laws, regulation, etc, as well
as informal authority
• Most analysts would agree it has grown over the 20th century
• But there have also been wide variations.
Nodality
• Is about the state’s central role in information
processing
• “Statistics” derived from ‘state-istics’ – gathering
social and economic information about the state and
its inhabitants
• Includes things like patents, research, libraries, etc
• Like the other three, undoubtedly grew massively
during the 20th C.
Measuring Leviathan?
Government
Nodality
Treasure
Authority
Organisation
High
High
High
High
Low
Low
Low
Low
Liberal democratic states
Government
Nodality
Treasure
Authority
Organisation
High
High
High
High
Low
Low
Low
Low
Social democratic states
Government
Nodality
Treasure
Authority
Organisation
High
High
High
High
Low
Low
Low
Low
Developmental states
Government
Nodality
Treasure
Authority
Organisation
High
High
High
High
Low
Low
Low
Low
So, how big should government be?
• Depends on: Need, History and Choice
• Stage of socio-economic development (need)
– Is there a ‘Goldilocks’ zone related to stage of development?
• Political culture and institutions (history – past choices)
• Political choices (choice)
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