Good governments–big or small–exist to serve; bad governments exist to exploit. That is the issue.
Governments always exist. The issue is not the existence or size of government; rather, the issue is whom the government serves. As long as Americans waste their time debating the meaningless question of how big a government should be, reform will prove an illusion. Perhaps that is why so many who oppose reform insist on raising this straw man.
The first time a local bully demanded subservience as the price of avoiding a punch in the face, government was established…or, one might respond, the first time two neighbors shook hands and agreed to protect each other from roving wolves. When Goldman Sachs wanted its bailout to pay it back for gambling away billions of investor contributions, it demanded Big Government. When Big Oil wants a tax break, it too demands Big Government. And of course when the American voter wants the world’s best superhighway system, he and she also want Big Government. Big Government for me; Small Government for you.
To really understand politics, it is necessary to discriminate between governments for special interests and governments for all (i.e., for “society,” hence the label “socialism,” which has nothing much to do with Cold War communism but just means that the goal is to aid society rather than one group). Some of the shrill voices warning about “socialism” (e.g., Palin) may not know this; many of them do and mean exactly what they say. They oppose policies that are good for society because they badly want policies that favor their little group.
To rephrase, “Big Government” is not necessarily “socialist” nor does Small Government necessarily equate with freedom. That $19B that the American taxpayer will never again see was the ultimate in Big Government but totally capitalist, in the robber baron sense of using government to steal from the masses. The Middle Ages in Europe were classic “Small Government” – if you had a horse and a sword, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted, including grabbing a peasant girl, making a private empire in the Levant, or setting up a private toll booth to tax merchants.
When “Big Government” stops Hitler or provides a large free trade zone (e.g, the whole United States), I love it. When it bails out millionaire gamblers or bombs pre-industrial societies to protect stolen oil (no, no, I was referring to Churchill in the early 1920s in Iraq), I beg to demur.
“Big Government” for society has indeed built the world’s greatest highway system in the U.S. It also created a public education system accessible to all (like the highway system). The education system is not very good, but that’s a detail: if you don’t like it, you are free to go to the library or sign on the Internet (both also brought to you—all of “you”–courtesy of Big Government) and educate yourself further. That’s a clue: Big Government that provides and/or regulates a safety net available to all but does not restrict individuals from pursuing higher goals is Good Government. Big Government that takes from the weak and gives to the strong is Bad Government. So, generally, is government – Big or Small – that constrains everyone to the official choices (e.g., the Soviet system of telling people what they could read). The distinction is between government for private gain vs. government for service.
The small word “regulation” is of course the elephant in the room of evaluating the quality of government. For one of many horror stories that is effectively being concealed from the American people about the way life is and the terrifying way it could be if government regulation were even worse, read up on the state of America’s nuclear plants.
Just for one example, today we in the U.S. (other pre-industrial and industrial societies made different choices) have a health care system designed for health industry profit, i.e., for private gain. It works brilliantly for that purpose. The point of health care reform is to design a system for service. A reformed health care service (as opposed to a health care industry) will, if ever designed, not make a profit. The public education system and the national highway system don’t make profits either. They are not supposed to; they exist to serve society. So should the health care system. It would not offer everything; “everything” is a pipedream. It would offer a safety net—details to be discussed, but for everyone. You are of course free to buy more health care just as you are free to buy a private plane or buy a book. How much “service” the government will provide is open to discussion; the concept of equal access to all is not open to discussion – not with a government designed to serve society.