Much of the concern with government deficits in countries as unlike as the United States and Greece focuses on public employees, viewed as overpaid parasites who, being paid by the government, contribute directly to the public debt. And there are indeed good economic reasons to expect the public sector to be less efficient than the private sector. The principal reasons are four: the incentive provided by the profit motive is absent; public agencies tend to be monopolies; public employees are voters; and public employers tend to substitute nonpecuniary for pecuniary emolumens, such as tenure and generous retirement benefits, because the public notices and reacts adversely to high government salaries.
Therefore one might think that the larger the fraction of public employees in a nation’s workforce, the less efficient the nation’s economy, and so the lower per capita GDP would be. (Commonly for international comparisons GDP is translated into U.S. dollars on the basis of estimates of purchasing power parity, and I will do that.) I decided to examine that question empirically, with respect to 27 countries, including the United States and Canada from the Western Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore from East Asia, Israel, and all the countries of Western, Northern, Central, and Southern Europe, plus Poland. The countries were not chosen at random, but instead selected as being at least roughly comparable to the United States in their economic system and political culture.
The percentage of public employees in the workforces of these countries ranges from 6.35 percent in Singapore to 33.87 percent in Sweden. Indeed the three lowest countries, and the only ones with fewer than 10 percent public employees, are Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. The highest countries after Sweden are Denmark (32.3 percent) and Norway (29.25 percent). The remaining Scandinavian country, Finland, is fifth with 26.31 percent. In fourth place, just below Denmark, is Hungary. The other countries with public-employee percentages above 20 percent are Greece (22.3 percent), Canada, and Poland, Greece being the lowest in this group of eight countries, despite all the negative attention its public-employee workforce has received lately.
The rest of the countries in my list (that is excluding the above-20 percent and below-10 percent countries), are grouped pretty tightly between about 12 and 19 percent. The United States is in approximately the middle, with 16.42 percent. Surprisingly, it is well ahead of Israel, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Portugal. The European countries with the lowest percentage of public workers are the Netherlands and Austria, but Portugal is only slightly above the Netherlands.
Per capita income, in purchasing power parity terms, ranges from $17,537 in Poland to $53,748 in Norway; interestingly, both have very high percentages of public employees. Regression analysis reveals no systematic correlation between percentage of public employees and per capita GDP, except that the Scandinavian countries as a group exhibit a statistically significant positive correlation between those two variables, if the Asian countries are treated as a separate variable—Singapore has the second highest GDP per capita after Norway, yet the lowest percentage of public employees.
The upshot is that there does not appear to be a relation between a country’s prosperity and the number of public employees it has. (Or between population and the percentage of public employees, though one might expect that, given fixed costs of government, the percentage of public employees would be higher the smaller the population. Singapore is a dramatic refutation of the point, as it has a population of only 4.6 million, one of the lowest of the 27 countries, yet it has the lowest percentage of public workers.)
A more sophisticated analysis would cover more countries (there are 195 countries in the world) and correct for more variables; obviously there is much that affect a nation’s prosperity besides the percentage of its public employees. I am nevertheless surprised that my crude analysis should yield no correlation between per capita GDP and percentage of public workers in a nation’s workforce. The critical omitted variable may be the jobs the public employees do. Are they teachers? Bank examiners? Revenue agents? Food and drug inspectors? Air traffic controllers? Police officers? Medical workers? Or are they railroad workers or other employees of business enterprises owned by the government, politicians’ relatives, licensing officials taking bribes from small business, or beneficiaries of a spoils system of public employment? It does seem significant, though, that the Scandinavian countries should be as prosperous as they are (though Norway, with a very small population and huge oil reserves, may be a special case) despite having such a high percentage of public workers, and it is equally striking that the East Asian countries (though my sample of them is very small) should be so prosperous despite having such a small percentage of public workers. Perhaps the relation between a nation’s economy and the percentage of its public workers is determined by a political and social culture that determines what tasks are assigned to government, what incentives and constraints are placed on public workers, and who is attracted to public service. Maybe, with the right conbination, public service can be as economically productive as private enterprise.