Does Wagner’s Law Make Sense?

Wagner’s law refers to the proposition of Adolph Wagner (1893) that there is a positive relationship between the level of economic development and the size of government. The underlying idea seems to have been that the demand for services provided by government tends to rise strongly as average incomes rise.

I think Wagner’s law still has a huge influence on the thinking of many economists. This influence is evident in the tendency of many economists to view big government as the norm for high-income countries. For example, it explains why economists pose questions like: Why doesn’t the US have a European-style welfare system? This is an odd question because there is considerable variation in the size of welfare states even within Europe and Swedish-style welfare systems are certainly not common among high-income countries outside of Europe.
The influence of Wagner’s law on the modern thinking of economists seems to rest on it being an empirical regularity or stylized fact. If you overlook the wide variation in size of government in high income countries, Wagner’s law does appear to fit some of the facts. Looking back at the recent history of individual OECD countries, most of them clearly had smaller governments 50 years ago when their average incomes were much lower. Yet, a recent study for the UK and Sweden from the beginning of industrialization until the present (a period of 177 years for the UK) found that Wagner’s law does not hold in the long run. The data are inconsistent with Wagner’s law in the initial industrialization phase (prior to 1860) and since the 1970s (Dick Durevall and Magnus Henrekson, ‘The futile quest for a grand explanation of long-run government expenditure’, INF Working Paper 818, 2010).
The Durevall and Henrekson paper also rejects a rival theory – the ratchet theory – that government spending ratchets up in times of crisis (wars, social upheavals, recessions) and then tends to remain at the new higher level. The expansion of government spending in the 25-35 years following WW2 cannot be explained in terms of a ratchet effect.
Some people might try to rescue Wagner’s law by arguing that it always applies at some stage during the process of industrialization. Thus it might be argued, for example, that Wagner’s law will result eventually in the development of big governments in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore that have been able to restrain growth in government, even though they now have relatively high average incomes. However, there do not seem to be any reasons why governments of high income countries would necessarily find it harder than governments of medium to low income countries to resist political pressures to become more heavily involved in activities such as funding of retirement incomes and provision of education and health services. Nor would they necessarily find it harder to resist arguments for the social welfare safety net funded by taxpayers to rise more than proportionately as incomes rise.
If we were desperate to rescue Wagner’s law perhaps we could argue that bigger government is an inevitable response to political pressures associated with the demographic transition – declining birth rates and aging population age structures – associated with economic growth. On this basis Peter Lindert argues that we should expect an expansion of the welfare states in East-Asian countries ‘as they age and prosper’. In OECD countries, including Japan, political systems responded to an increase in the proportion of old people in the populations by providing pensions for aged persons. The further aging of populations has led to increased government spending on pensions – a major factor associated with the growth of government spending in high income countries. Lindert asks: ‘Do we really know that China, Singapore and other East Asians will be more resistant to rising transfer budgets than Japan has been, when they approach Japan’s income level and age structure?’ (‘Growing Public’, Vol 1: 221).

My answer to Peter Lindert’s question is that I don’t know how East Asian governments will respond to an increase in grey power. Perhaps they will see what lessons they can learn from the experience of the big government welfare states of Europe and decide that there is a better way to fund retirement incomes. They might even decide that the compulsory savings approach that has applied in Singapore since 1955 is preferable to the absurdity of taxing people of working age more heavily in order to add unnecessarily to the retirement incomes of their wealthy parents.

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