Shapes and Sizes

Public lawyers (and public law students) should think about government size―and shape

I am currently in the process of making slides for the early lectures in the constitutional law course I am due to deliver in the next month or so. One of them, for a lecture on the basic concepts of the UK constitution, looks like this:

Slide explaining government size in the United Kingdom

With this slide, I want to make three points that I thought are worth sharing here too. One is obvious, but not sufficiently thought of in public law. One was actually something of a revelation to me. And one is connected to my recent post on the “good government trilemma” ― the unpleasant trade-offs between democracy, government size, and accountability.

The obvious point is that government is very, very big. In the UK, it spent just over 40% of GDP in pre-pandemic years. The figure is substantially higher now. Another way to understand its size and complexity is the number of ministers, though in fairness the UK is something of an outlier here: it has as many ministers as New Zealand has MPs, opposition ones included. But the Canadian cabinet has almost 40 members nowadays ― and of course it does not need people to deal with provincial issues.

Although well-known (though perhaps not to first-year law students), I think this reality is worth highlighting in the context of a public law course. For one thing, it shows just how important public law is ― it would matter less in a nightwatchman state. As I hinted at in the “trilemma” post, if you think public lawyers are taking up too much space, one solution is to shrink government. But most people who want to ― metaphorically ― fist kill all the lawyers are not itching to ― metaphorically ― kill all the ministers and civil servants.

It is well known, too, that government is much bigger now than it used to be 100, let alone 150 years ago. Taxation and government spending as percentage of GDP is one convenient way of measuring this. Before the Great War, the UK government was spending 8-10% of GDP (except during the Boer War, when it was somewhat more than that) ― and that was a time when the Royal Navy was as big as its two nearest competitors combined. One could also describe the various areas of human activity that government regulates, as illustrated by the gaggles and flocks of ministers (though perhaps the better collective noun would be a meddling). This expansion, as opposed to the sheer magnitude of the end product, is often mentioned in administrative law, because writers on the subject, at least in North America, tend to think that it justifies the existence of a more-or-less unsupervised administrative state. It could, of course, just as well be taken as evidence of the administrative state’s malignancy. My point in the lecture will not be to take sides ― that’s not a lecturer’s role ― but this blog’s readers will know which way my sympathies lie.

Less well known ― indeed, something of a surprise to, though perhaps I am simply an ignoramus ― is that fact that by some measures government is now much less active than it used to be. Specifically, I mean the much-reduced number of statutes being enacted annually. My numbers, for the UK, come from a study by Chris Watson for the UK’s House of Commons Library, and those on the slide may be understating matters: in the last few years, the number of statutes enacted each year has fallen further, from the low 30s to the low 20s. (I’ve not put this on the slide because it might still be a temporary blip; but how long can something temporary last before it isn’t temporary)? It averaged about 100 if not more before WWII. Granted, these numbers don’t tell us everything; it may be that the complexity and/or length of statutes being enacted has increased, compensating for the lower numbers. But they are nonetheless suggestive. The volume of delegated legislation, by contrast, grew enormously from 1950, and indeed 1980, to the mid-1990s and stayed at that level until, it would seem, Brexit. It then fell off a cliff, relatively speaking, though there are no data for the period before 1950 ― I suspect it would have been substantially less at least until the Great War, and perhaps later.

This means that not only the size, but also the shape, if you will, of government has changed a lot over the last century. It is a great deal more executive-dominated than before. Parliament grants the executive enormous resources and vast delegated legislative powers, but it does not act as much as before for itself ― or rather, given the executive’s control of Parliamentary agenda, isn’t allowed to act. This too isn’t exactly a shocking discovery ― it is not really a discovery of any kind ―, but I think it needs to be kept mind when we assess claims about, for example, the judiciary’s real or alleged interference with Parliament, the important of the political constitution, and so on.

And this brings me to my third point, which follows from the trilemma I have previously discussed. It is that when we discuss public law, and especially when we discuss the changes that public law has undergone since, roughly, the 1960s ― both in the UK and in Canada (and New Zealand too). The judicial role has expanded a great deal in these jurisdictions, albeit in somewhat different ways. UK courts might be more intrusive vis-à-vis the executive; Canadian courts have been granted greater powers vis-à-vis Parliament. There is no question that, by the standards of 1950, let alone 1900, courts are more influential. But this development did not take place in a vacuum. It occurs, not coincidentally I would argue, in parallel with a vast expansion of government, and therefore of the government’s capacity for messing with people’s lives. To insist that the law used to control a government of the size and shape it has in 2022 should be as minimalistic as it was in 1872 or even 1922, or that Parliament can remain the primary if not the sole forum in which government is kept accountable as the government looked as it did in Dicey’s time is either mad or disingenuous.

This argument, by the way, does not in any way depend on thinking that government expansion, without more, is bad. Admittedly, I think it is ― I can say so here, though that will be beside the point in my lecture. But you can very well disagree with that, but still believe that an appropriately expanded government requires the kind of accountability and supervision that the courts have increasingly come to provide (in part thanks to their own efforts and in part because they were asked to do so). That said, I do wonder whether colleagues for whom the expansion of government over the last century is a welcome phenomenon might be less inclined to reflect on its implications, simply because they see it as natural, and it is human nature to think less about what one thinks of in this way. Small-government heretics have their uses in public law academia ― but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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