Does the US Government spend enough?

As Democrats loudly complain that the Federal government doesn’t spend enough, I got to wondering how our spending compares to other countries. I was thinking of real measures, not abstractions.

I had in mind education and health care where we’re always being told we need to spend more when, in fact, we already have some of the highest spending levels in the world. Did this high spending also apply to government spending?

So I did a quick look for government spending per household or per capita – and it turns out it mostly does apply: we are not spending laggards.

This type of data does not appear to be widely available – it seems a worthwhile, but underdeveloped area of analysis. I found only two different sources, but they each show basically the same thing.

1. John Lott: John Lott, a conservative economist and author, offers an analysis on his blog. The data table from this analysis is pasted below. It shows the US at $17,370 per capita as being the 9th highest spending worldwide.

government spending per capita by countryThis data was used as the basis for an opinion piece published by Fox News in 2010: Our Bloated Goverment Is Already Much, Much Bigger Than You Think.

2. OECD: An OECD analysis from 2009 shows a similar type of outcome. This shows the US as 9th among OECD nations for government spending with spending of $15,999 per capita in 2006. They provide a link to the underlying data (Excel download) they used.

oecd government spending per capita by country
Government expenditures per capita (2006)

Presumably, there are many adjustments one could make to both data sets to affect the specific figures, but doubtless the main point would prevail which is that compared to other countries, US per capita government spending levels are reasonably high – and certainly aren’t unusually low.

I also suspect that these analyses understate the actual situation because they don’t appear to count spending by ALL levels of government. Given that in the US state and local governments tend to be larger and spend more than comparable entities in other countries (lots of countries don’t even have 3 operative levels of gov’t), I imagine an inclusive analysis of all government spending would put the US even closer to the top of the list.

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