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by Valentino Piana (2001)



1. Significance
2. Composition
3. Determinants
4. Impact on other variables
5. Long-term trends
6. Business cycle behaviour
7. Data
8. Related papers
9. Formal models


Public expenditure is the value of goods and services bought by the State and its articulations.

Public expenditure plays six main roles:
1. it contributes to current effective demand;
2. it expresses a coordinated impulse on the economy, which can be used for stabilization, business cycle inversion, and growth purposes;
3. it increases the public endowment of common and shared goods for everybody;
4. it gives rise to positive externalities to economy and society as a whole (or in specific sectors and geographical areas), the more so through its capital component;
5. it complements industrial and societal resilience to shocks;

6. in combination with the tax system, it redistributes income and wealth.

With its prioritised structure and its peculiar decision-making processes, it substantiates the prevailing kind of State.

In democracy, public expenditure is an expression of people's will, managed through political parties and institutions. At the same time, public expenditure is characterised by a high degree of inertia and law-dependency, which tempers the will of the current majority.

Public expenditure can be financed through taxes, public debt, money emission, international aid.


First, public expenditure can be classified in terms of the kind of goods and services bought, also with very general items:

1. capital goods;
2. consumption goods;
3. personnel expenditure.

By contrast, public expenditure in national accounts does not comprehend mere transfers among social groups, as it is the case of pension schemes. Payments of interest on public debt are not comprehended as well.

Second, public expenditure can be classified according to the official body and organization from which budget it is paid, as for example:

1. the central state and its ministries;
2. regional and local authorities;
3. separate public bodies;
4. international organizations.

Here we should note that public expenditure usually does not consolidate state-owned firms. Their capital goods expenditure is added to investment.

In modern states, the expenditure of the different bodies is interlinked, with national programmes co-financing both international and decentralised projects. The co-financing with the private sector is sometimes actively looked for.

Third, public expenditure can be classified according to the macro-function at which it is directed:

1. justice and public order;
2. infrastructure (roads, railways,...);
3. military system;
4. education system;
5. environmental protection;
6. health care;
7. support for the poor, the old, the disadvantaged and marginalized;
8. support for firms, export and production in general;
regional policies for rural and urban areas;
10. special policy expenditure (foreign aid, integrated fight against drugs,...).

These priorities can be financed independently one from each other or be integrated and built in complex packages, as it happens with urban regeneration and policies for the transition to a green low-carbon economy.

In different places and over time, those macro-functions have largely changed their level of priority and even the social acceptance of the idea that it is the State that must care of them.

In particular, as a very sketched framework, one may distinguish at least three general models of state to which public expenditure corresponds:

1. the minimal state, where only justice, public order, civil protection, foreign policy and some other basic functions should be carried out by the state, relying on private initiative for the others;
2. the welfare state, where the State cares about the people's well-being directly, also through expenditure in schooling, health, support for the poor, the old, the disadvantages;
3. the developmental state, where the State takes the responsibility of fostering economic development, also through expenditure in infrastructure, support for firms, innovation, export and production in general.

Both the welfare and developmental state include the items of the minimal state. Military expenditure and special policies are common traits of the three models, typically in different proportions.

Comparing macro-function shares in public expenditure, one can get insights in the kind of state under analysis.

Needless to say, the State does not exert its influence on economy and society through public expenditure only, but also for example through laws. By integrating laws, public expenditure and the tax system (as well as other components) one put together comprehensive policies.

In certain countries, public expenditure contains a wide arrays of waste and resource dissipation, duplicative employment of low-productive bureacrats, boosted quotations in tenders, leading to super-normal profits of the few selected firms, which, if there is any lax legislation, practice and enforcement, generate the incentive for corruption. Transparency and public monitoring of prices of the goods purchased by public authorities can substantially increase the efficiency and the consensus around public expenditure.


Public expenditure is determined by political will of the leading forces in the state: their priorities, their desired state model, and their interpretation of current economic and political phase. Past choices have relevant impact on public expenditure because of inertia and incrementalism. Bureaucracy may play an important decision role for the actual expenditure. The pressure of public opinion for solving certain problems may framed and channelled into a public expenditure.

Sometimes considered as a completely exogenous variable, the public expenditure would thus be fully in the hand of political decision-makers without dependency from the economic context.

Yet, policy makers may turn out to follow an anti-cyclical broad control of public expenditure. Automatic stabilizers may be at work, as with the case of support schemes for unemployment: in this case, higher unemployment and disappointing GDP growth would lead to higher public expenditure through unemployment benefits and financial support to firms.

In a different political and institutional context, public expenditure may, instead, positively respond to state revenues. Higher revenues (and maybe even a public surplus) may lead to higher public expenditure. Symmetrically, if there is an upper limit to public deficit and, because of a recession, tax revenue fall, the State may be forced to cut public expenditure. In this context, public expenditure would turn out to be pro-cyclical.

Lawmakers facing elections are sensitive to the public opinion. Usually, low-income social groups are in favour of expanding public expenditure in social issues, as stimulus for jobs, and provision of free or subsidised services. The rich tend to use less public services and to be more worried by the amount of tax necessary to fund public expenditure. The middle class is ambivalent and will react depending on the specific frame that will be proposed by politicians.

Specific expenditure categories and items have their favourable and opponent constituencies. Certain large-scale projects can be the subject of a national debate and the decision can depend on its outcome.

The process of public budgeting is crucial to influence the outcome, e.g. with the sequence of decisions being capable of "leaving no money" for the "last" choices. The current level of public deficit or surplus is ambivalently used to influence changes in the level of public expenditure. For those who desire a more or less balanced budget, the surplus is an invitation to spend, a deficit to cut. However, the same surplus can instead be directed to tax cut and the deficit gap can be filled in by new taxes or more incisive fight to tax evasion.

Emergency needs, as for the case of pandemics, wars, conflicts, major industrial bottlenecks (e.g. lack of critical infrastructure in electricity, transportation, mining or other sectors) may force the hand to policymakers and push for temporary increases, with some possible degrees of hysteresis (stabilization of the expenditure at a higher level permanently).

Impact on other variables

A GDP component as it is, public expenditure has an immediate impact on GDP. An increase of public expenditure rises GDP by the same amount, other things equal. Moreover, since income is an important determinant of consumption, that increase of income will be followed by a rise in consumption: a positive feedback loop has been triggered between consumption and income, exactly as in the case of shocks in export, investment or autonomous consumption.

The full extent of this mechanism will depend, however, by the reactions of the other economic agents. Firms have to decide whether to increase production or prices in response to demand.

Moreover, if consumers interpret the increase in public expenditure as a fall in their disposable income (i.e. after-tax income), consumption may fall accordingly.

Public expenditure is also told to crowd-out investment, possibly through an interest rate increase, further leading, in a floating exchange rate regime, to a currency appreciation. Exports would then be displaced as well.

In more microeconomic terms, public expenditure may be directed to consumer goods and thus substitute families' expenditure, as with the case of health drugs. By contrast, in other cases, as with education, public expenditure may trigger further consumption (books and all the other goods whose consumption depend on culture levels acquired before).

Conversely, the part of public expenditure which is burned in rent-seeking behaviours, corruption, and purposeless purchases can alter the rules of the game in markets, firms, and income distribution.

Long-term trends

In developed countries, it has always grown, whatever the political orientation of the government. Just the tempo can change. With a few exceptions, only under extremely strong constraints has public expenditure been cut in absolute terms, so that this attempt can be judged as difficult.

Wars are episodes of extremely high public expenditure, followed usually by a return to normality, unless the pressure of the ex-soldiers for social advancement is met with an extension of the welfare state.

Business cycle behaviour

Public expenditure may turn out to be pro-cyclical or anti-cyclical depending on the political and institutional attitude toward public deficit.

During recessions, tax revenue tends to fall, public budget usually degradates. Some governments react by reducing public expenditure and freezing employment and wages in the public sector. Other decide to spend more to stimulate the economy.

The former risks to worsening GDP dynamics and engendering a vicious cycle, which can be broken by international trade dynamics, financial inflows or other variables.

The second would provoke a deep public deficit, waiting for GDP rebound and, possibly, new taxes.

Still, real world data show often little reaction of public expenditure to the cycle. Most cycles show public expenditure as a stabilizing tool just keeping the same dynamics when the rest "goes wrong".


Citizen support for state responsibilty in healthcare, education and food - a world poll

Public Expenditure, Consumption, and the other GDP components (1946-2007) for 171 countries

Social security structure across the world (44 countries)

Public expenditure data from 136 countries: a long term time series

Composition of public expenditure (education, health, defence...) - 69 countries in Africa, Asia, America, Europe (1975-1985)

The impact of public expenditure on education results
[8 MB]

Data for all the variables in IS-LM model

EU data for all the variables in IS-LM model (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, UK, Switzerland and other 13 European countries)

Total expenditure on health in OECD countries (1960-2000)

Related papers

Health care experience of Kerala (India)

Health care experience of Italy

Towards greener government procurement: a case study

Formal models

An interactive map of how the economy works according to a basic macroeconomic scheme: the IS-LM model

Key concepts
  Business cycles