We hear a lot in the US about how, despite the “tyranny” we have to put up with, we’re still much freer and better off than those “socialist” European countries, which are being choked in the stranglehold of big government. Occasionally these claims are even accompanied by statistics proving that public spending as a percentage of GDP is considerably higher than in the US (and it’s high enough there). Oddly, though, most Europeans don’t seem to feel choked by big government as much as we Americans do.
A very illuminating chart from an excellent recent article in the Economist on the new Tory agenda in the UK suggests a more complex picture. It shows the percentage of total gov’t spending that comes from the central government in various western countries. Britain, unsurprisingly, is one of the worst, with the national budget making up more than 70% of total public expenditure. In the US, it is still pretty bad–around 57%. However, in all those “big-government” European countries like France and Germany, it ranges from 19% to 36%. This is particularly striking when you realize that in a country as vast as the United States, with 50 states, many of which were once semi-autonomous, you would actually expect federal spending to be relatively lower than in a smaller country. Or at least, I would.
This chart seems to confirm something I have come to suspect in recent months–that it is not government per se that is the problem, but excessively centralized government. You can have a huge public sphere and get along just fine, if that hugeness is dispersed in every local community, instead of massed together in one great Leviathan. Perhaps conservatives in America should start looking to places like France as examples to profit from, not run from. Now there’s a crazy idea?