In terms of the ratchet mechanism, the explanation for upward movement in government spending may appear straight forward, reflecting public demands for the government to ‘do something’ to help solve a problem. The process is not entirely mechanistic, however, because public demands for government action can vary depending on ideological factors e.g. changing perceptions about the role of government in helping people who are adversely affected by a recession and about the effectiveness of deficit spending. It is also possible for the upward movement to occur for opportunistic reasons e.g. politicians with an ideological leaning toward big government ‘never want a serious crisis to go to waste’.
A variety of reasons have been put forward to explain why public spending might remain at the new higher level after the end of the crisis. The most mechanistic explanation is status quo bias – the tendency of people to choose to maintain the status quo rather than to change a policy. For example, once tax rates have been increased to fund war time spending, status quo bias may favour retention of higher tax rates.
In addition, new programs created during a crisis may tend to develop a life of their own by creating interest groups with a vested interest in their continuation - including newly created bureaucracies that will fight to prevent themselves from being eliminated.
However, the ratchet theory does not provide a complete explanation of the growth of government. In his review of Robert Higgs’ book, ‘Crisis and Leviathan’, Gary Anderson notes that while most historians argue that the Civil War was the pre-eminent crisis in American history, ‘following this particular crisis, government sank like a stone relative to the growth of the private economy’.
Dick Durevall and Magnus Henrekson did not find strong support for the ratchet theory in their recent study of trends in size of government in the UK and Sweden from the beginning of industrialization until the present:
‘There is no consistent evidence of a ratchet effect in either country. There is some evidence of an asymmetric effect in both countries in the post-war period, but this is reversed in subsequent periods. Hence there is no clear evidence that government exploits recessions and crises to permanently shift the government spending ratio upwards’ (p. 22).
In New Zealand, government spending as a percentage of GDP seems to have fallen during WW2 as well as in the latter half of the 1950s and the 1990s. At the same time, as noted by Bryce Wilkinson, ‘the timing of the increases in the state’s share looks opportunistic’. Wilkinson suggests that growth in government spending reflects ‘changing ideas about the role of the state and the increasing power of vested spending interests’ (‘Restraining Leviathan’, 2004: Figure 5, p.41).
It is also difficult to see a consistent ratchet effect in the following chart for Australia showing estimates of government spending as a percentage of GDP over the period from 1939 to the present. The increase that occurred in the 1970s has not been reversed, but during the 1950s the Menzies government seems to have managed to defy the ratchet effect by reducing government spending to levels close to those in 1939.
I have never previously thought that I might one day have reason to praise the economic achievements of the Menzies government. It seemed to me that the Menzies government’s greatest claim to support free enterprise was to have removed war-time price control, rationing and import controls (more or less and belatedly). However, the efforts of this government in reducing the size of government during the 1950s deserve high praise.
Summing up, it seems to me, to be important not to downplay the role of ideology in influencing trends in government spending. During some periods there may be a tendency for government spending to ratchet up in response to crises. Changes in government spending may also be influenced by changes in the power of interest groups (for example as changes occur in the age structure of populations). In the end, however, ideas about the role of government matter a great deal.