A government operates under constraints that are different from that of an entrepreneur.
The entrepreneur has no choice but to satisfy his consumers by withdrawing from the market factors of production whose output, directly or indirectly, currently satisfies fewer consumers than they are looking to satisfy or currently satisfies less urgent needs than they are looking to satisfy. The profit they reap is a result of the improved allocation of these factors of production.
A government obtains goods in a different fashion. It needs to obtain them via taxation, which is in last resort an act of theft against the individuals within its territory. But individuals in general resent acts of aggression. In the long run a government can’t just send its police to collect taxes under no pretense whatever. Violent upheavals by the governed and subversion would inevitably ensue after some time. This holds true for a dictatorship as it does for a democracy. In order to justify its acts of aggression a government needs the consent of the majority of the governed, it needs public opinion on its side.
Which means it employs in order to attain this objective cannot categorically be determined. Throughout history, governments have employed different justifications for its existence:
Throughout history governments across the globe have always appealed to fear of foreign enemies to justify its necessity. But in addition there have been subtleties in other areas: In ancient days government leaders would be anointed by the clerical class which had the greatest influence on public opinion. During the age of enlightenment, with the appearance of capitalism, the idea of using government to protect private property and individual liberties became popular. When in the 20th century the concepts of socialism conquered the hearts and minds of the broad majority, the idea of complete government control of the factors of production had become unstoppable and was swiftly put into practice virtually everywhere in the world. When the attempts of socialism had proven impracticable and lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideas of interventionism convinced the peoples of the world of the necessity of government bureaucracy. Minimum wage, centrally planned welfare programs, fiat money and subsidies for special industries became the norm.
Thus the main constraint for a government is the approval for its actions by the majority of the people. It will always do its best to mold public opinion to the extent possible. So long as it confines its activity to the protection of individuals against aggression and theft no major harm is caused. As soon as it begins to embark upon broader expansions of its bureaucracy, those who are governed by it need to be ever more vigilant and doubtful.
It is important to understand the context and the scope of the science of economics. It is a common misconception that economics is a science that primarily deals with maths, numbers, statistics, averages, medians, and charts. Myriad university professors all across the globe teach students about supply and demand curves and how to calculate market equilibrium through the derivative of those, and perform many other numbers games.
All this accomplishes nothing but to obfuscate the true essence of economics. Little attention is paid to important concepts, such value and time preference, the formation of prices, the importance of consumption goods vs. factors of production, the concepts of money and monetary policy.
All market data is nothing but the outcome of actions performed by individuals, cooperating, producing, consuming, and competing on the market. Economics is first and foremost a science of human action, so before embarking upon an analysis of statistical data and mathematical concepts it is indispensable to understand the motivating forces behind actions performed by humans. Those have been fully explained by Praxeology.
(Check here for much better and updated charts regarding government growth.)
If there has been one consistent trend in economic developments in the United States over the past 60 years it would be the growth of the size of federal, state, and local governments in relation to the private sector.
The extent to which federal, state, and local governments in the US spend on the one hand and tax and borrow on the other hand has grown consistently. The best way to measure this is to take a look at the development of government receipts and spending as compared to total spending in the United Stated which is measured by GDP ( = Total Consumer Spending + Total Investment Spending + Total Government Spending + Exports – Imports):
As can be seen in the first chart above, government expenses as % of GDP in the US increased from 17.2% in 1948 to 31.5% in 2007. The second chart shows that taxes rose from 21.7% to 29.2% in the same period.
What is noteworthy that there was a brief period (1992 – 2000) where federal, state and local governments as a whole managed to cut its expenses as compared to the private sector from 33.4% to 29.2%. From 2001 through 2007, however, total government expenditures have once again grown consistently.
The fact that government expenses have grown throughout US history is hardly ever acknowledged or even mentioned in media outlets or by the responsible authorities. This is not surprising. For once one acknowledges it, the age-old myths about neo-liberalism, free markets on steroids, anarchy, merciless capitalism, or insufficient government funding would immediately be debunked and could no longer be utilized as convenient excuses by those in power.
In order to elaborate on the essence of government, nothing more is needed than the explanations by the two economists Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. Regardless of how unpopular and unconventional, every single word of their definitions is true, and nothing viable has ever been raised in objection or refutation against them:
Ludwig von Mises:
“Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.” (Mises, Human Action, Chapter XXVII, Part 2)
“The State is a group of people who have managed to acquire a virtual monopoly of the use of violence throughout a given territorial area. In particular, it has acquired a monopoly of aggressive violence, for States generally recognize the right of individuals to use violence (though not against States, of course) in self-defense. The State then uses this monopoly to wield power over the inhabitants of the area and to enjoy the material fruits of that power. The State, then, is the only organization in society that regularly and openly obtains its monetary revenues by the use of aggressive violence; all other individuals and organizations (except if delegated that right by the State) can obtain wealth only by peaceful production and by voluntary exchange of their respective products. This use of violence to obtain its revenue (called “taxation“) is the keystone of State power. Upon this base the State erects a further structure of power over the individuals in its territory, regulating them, penalizing critics, subsidizing favorites, etc. The State also takes care to arrogate to itself the compulsory monopoly of various critical services needed by society, thus keeping the people in dependence upon the State for key services, keeping control of the vital command posts in society and also fostering among the public the myth that only the State can supply these goods and services. Thus the State is careful to monopolize police and judicial service, the ownership of roads and streets, the supply of money, and the postal service, and effectively to monopolize or control education, public utilities, transportation, and radio and television.” (Rothbard, War, Peace, and the State)
Inflation and deflation are market phenomena whose occurrence only becomes important under a fiat money system. Under a voluntary money system in which individuals are given the immediate choice to choose what they in fact prefer as the best money, goods that are limited in supply will naturally prevail and inflation will be modest and negligible. It is a historical fact that over time the precious metals gold and silver outstripped all other goods as media of exchange for their limited supply, durability, uniformity, divisibility, and aesthetic appeal. In the Untied States it was of course the compulsory intervention by a cash strapped government that outlawed the non-acceptance of the paper dollar, a fiat money, and on top of that outlawed any private ownership of gold.
Inflation is defined as an increase in the money supply, the nominal amount of money units held by all individuals within a certain territory.
Inflation occurs in a fiat money system when the central bank or fractional reserve banks produce additional money to be used in a certain territory and use it to buy goods or to perform credit transactions with other individuals on the market.
Since the marginal value preference assigned by individuals to each additional unit of money will be lower the more money they hold, the price of goods expressed in terms of money will be more likely to rise over time, if the money growth exceeds the growth of other goods.
The fundamental issue with inflation is not that prices go up. If the newly created money was distributed evenly across society, all incomes would rise in lockstep with prices. The entire operation would be a zero sum game. The fundamental issue is that inflation in a fiat money system occurs through creation of new money that certain individuals receive earlier than others. Wealth is thus shifted from those who receive the money later (after prices have already gone up) to those who receive it earlier (before prices have gone up). Typically this means a shift of wealth from workers to the government and to owners of fractional reserve banks and the central bank. It lowers the general standard of living insofar as it becomes less desirable to perform work that fulfills voluntary value preferences and more desirable to perform work based on bureaucratic government decisions that involve theft and compulsory action.
Deflation is defined as a drop in the money supply. It occurs when the central bank or fractional reserve banks reduce the money supply by reversing their inflation by selling goods other than money, thus withdrawing money out of circulation, or when individuals make more re-payments as part of credit transactions (which they entered into with the central banks or fractional reserve bank) than additional money is produced.
As the money supply declines, the price of other goods in terms of money is more likely to drop over time.
Deflation is in essence a correction of the previous misallocations created by inflation.
Addendum: What I was referring to above is monetary inflation. Please see more details in Inflation & Deflation Revisited.