Parkinson's Law Reminds Us Government Growth Has Only Just Begun

Parkinson's Law Reminds Us Government Growth Has Only Just Begun
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"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." - C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law

Politicians are much smarter than they appear. Think about it. For decades they’ve stoked voter fury with stories of $600 toilet seats, welfare queens, “crony capitalist” handouts to Shake Shack, Harvard, Tesla and Solyndra (to name just a few), earmarks, and ritual anger about atrocities like $27,000,000 for Moroccan pottery classes funded through USAID.

There’s always some kind of outrage that distracts voters from what really matters. And the only number that matters is how much government spends. Period. Money isn’t some abstraction, it’s instead an agreement about value that is exchangeable for actual market goods and services. Precisely because money represents the movement of real things, including labor most crucially, government spending’s total amounts to how much control politicians have over us. We are the economy. Get it?  

The shame is that it’s only gotten worse since March, when lockdowns on the city, state and national levels began. Crisis is of course oxygen for government that, because it’s government, only grows. And with an invisible virus having reached the freest country on earth, we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians would use the virus to grow their role in our lives. Basically crises feed government, plus governments in their zeal to centralize the response to everything invariably create crises. 

Needless to say, politicians managed to distract the electorate yet again. Fear and outrage rooted in news like the Los Angeles Lakers receiving government funds was the shameful deception as Congress in very short order extracted $2.9 trillion from the U.S. economy in order to redistribute same. What a deal for Congress: near-term rage about a prosperous professional team getting $10 million or so, in return for the right to hand out trillions.

The tragedy is that the money being wasted is but the beginning. We know this because governments never shrink. No doubt politicians talk a big game about looking at budgets in “line by line fashion” in search of waste, but the underlying reality is that they exist to spend. And once the money is spent, the amount consumed by politicians rarely retreats. Spending cuts in one area distract us yet again, only for the money saved to be spent elsewhere. 

Notable is that the above truth was institutionalized long ago by British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson. His essential observations are known as Parkinson’s Law. While analyzing British naval history, Parkinson revealed as false the widely held view embraced by politicians that the need for more civil servants will reveal itself through a growing volume of work completed. The truth is something quite different.

As Parkinson observed, "the number of the officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all." In his case, Parkinson witnessed the non-relationship up close through studies of the Royal Navy's bureaucracy.

While the Royal Navy could in 1914 claim 146,000 officers and men served by 3,249 dockyard officials and clerks, plus 57,000 dockyard workmen, by 1928 there were only 100,000 officers and men, yet the number of dockyard officials and clerks had risen to 4,558. This, despite the fact that the number of British warships had declined from 62 to 20.

Parkinson went on to show that over the same period, the number of Admiralty officials had risen from 2,000 to 3,569. The British Navy had shrunk by 1/3rd in terms of men, and 2/3rds in terms of ships, thus forcing Parkinson to conclude that the growth in the number of workers for the Royal Navy "was unrelated to any possible increase in their work."

Parkinson went on to lay out what he deemed two "motive forces" for the increase of bureaucracy alongside reduced work output. As he put it, "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals," and second, "Officials make work for each other." If an official feels overworked, whether true or not, there's little incentive to hire someone of similar stature, nor is there incentive to hire just one subordinate. Indeed, if the senior official were simply to hire one subordinate, doing so would effectively make the hire similar in stature to the individual who hired him.

But arguably the main driver of the growth of bureaucracies is self-interest. Politicians, like you and me, want to enjoy life’s comforts. Their calculation is that if they can “endure” top percentile pay of $174,000 for several terms on the way to stature within the House or Senate, they can retire to many multiples of their government pay once out of office.

Stating what should be obvious, cushy retirements for politicians don’t in any way correlate with shrunken government. The only way for politicians to attain their reward of well-paid lobbying jobs, professorships, and speaking fees is if the cost and scope of government continues to rise. Absent the growth, ex-politicians would have to get regular jobs. And as we know intimately now, regular jobs often have ephemeral qualities to them.

Government is much safer. Precisely because it grows and grows, there will always be work outside of it related to moving the money it spends around, teaching how government moves money around on leafy college campuses, or talking to rapt audiences about how government moves money around. It’s amazing work if you can get it, but it’s only amazing insofar as spending grows.

Comical and sad about all this is that $2.9 trillion was once again extracted from the private economy so that politicians could centrally plan who got it. Absent this obnoxious arrogation of private wealth by public servants, it’s not as though the money would have sat idle. Quite the opposite, really. Indeed, there are already in existence seasoned professionals well-schooled when it comes to expertly directing unspent wealth to higher uses in the form of investment that creates the companies and jobs politicians claim to yearn for. They’re called investment bankers.

So why didn’t politicians skip building new governmental bureaucracies, while leaving resource allocation to those outside government? Readers know the answer. $2.9 trillion (and counting) spent by Congress now makes it near impossible for future spending to be smaller (if at all) than the new amounts spent. Since spending cuts relative to past years are always “heartless” and certain to result in "mass poverty," spending allegedly can’t be reduced.

Which means retirement for your always “parsimonious” politicians will become cushier and cushier. In short, the $2.9 trillion outrage that so many ignored while yelling about Shake Shack is only the beginning. Parkinson’s Law and human nature ensure that this latest surge in government’s size and cost just sets the stage for more and more of the same.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading ( His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at  

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