The Public Interest

Parkinson’s Law revisited: war and the growth of American government

Bruce D. Porter

Summer 1980

WHEN George Washington’s first Administration was inaugurated in 1790, it functioned with nine simple executive units and approximately 1,000 employees. A century later, the 1891 census recorded that over 150,000 civilians were working in the Harrison Administration. During its first 100 years the American government had grown nearly 10 times as fast as the population.  By 1979 the executive branch employed over 2,800,000 civil servants, divided among 12 cabinet departments, 59 independent agencies, and the several bureaus of the White House Executive Ofrice.  These administrative units in turn embraced nearly 1,000 major subunits. The Assistant Administrator for Water and Hazardous Materials of the Environmental Protection Agency presided over a staff larger than Washington’s entire first Administration. When Jimmy Carter entered office, 1 in every 75 Americans was employed by the executive branch (compared with 1 per 463 in 1891, and i per 4,000 in 1790). This ratio was actually much smaller than in mid-year 1945, when Roosevelt’s wartime Administration reached a record peak of 3,816,310 persons.

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