Even otherwise-sensible journalists are sometimes lazy enough to report as fact the claim of Republican “conservatives” (a misnomer, as applied to irresponsible radicals) to favor “small government.”
Of course, that’s not true when it comes to the use of government to enforce small-minded small-town morality, especially in sexual matters. Whatever the libertarian fringe thinks, the actual position of actual conservatives in office and at the voting booth has been consistently anti-reproductive choice, anti-gay, and in favor of the War on Some Drugs, not including alcohol or tobacco. And when it comes to the most dramatic exercise of state power – incarceration – conservatives have been the leading cheerleaders for expansion and are now (with some honorable but politically powerless exceptions) the main barrier to shrinkage.
But what about the federal budget? Surely conseratives are in favor of shrinking that.
Actually, no. More than half the people who work for the federal government are either uniformed military or civilian employees of DoD and the other security agencies. There was a time – under Bob Taft – when Washington Republicans opposed defense spending, partly as a carry-over from their flirtation with America First in the 1930s. (That led most of the GOP on Capitol Hill to oppose the draft in 1940, without which we might well have lost WWII.) But ever since the GOP has been squarely in the pocket of the defense lobby. And of course – with rare exceptions having to do with the presence of hated Democrats in the White House – “conservative” Republicans always love war, the most wasteful and destructive government spending of all.
Even on “industrial policy,” the GOP position has more to do with campaign contributions and political alliances than with principle. Subsidies for nuclear power, including an arbitrary limit on liability for disasters? They’re for ‘em. (As it happens, so am I.) Eminent domain? They hate it, except when it comes time to build the Keystone Pipeline, which couldn’t be built without taking lots of private property for private use. “Conservative” Southern state and local governments bid feverishly against one another with subsidies and tax breaks to attract industry from other states; this game of beggar-thy-neighbor is futile in terms of creating jobs, but it’s superb in generating campaign money.
“Small government” is a far more popular slogan than it deserves to be. But the people now calling themselves “conservative” can’t reasonably lay claim to it.
Footnote There are, of course, a few libertarians who actually would like to see the role of government in society shrink. But of course even they don’t want government to stop enforcing the property rights in land that governments created, without – as Robert Nozick pointed out years ago – any plausible justification. Most of them don’t favor reining in the excesses of “intellectual property,” either, or abolishing corporate limited liability (a clear violation of natural right when it means protecting tortfeasors and con artists from their victims). So libertarian “small government” means, in practice, mostly that governments should keep helping property-owners against the rest of us but stop protecting the rest of us against property-owners (e.g. by preventing profitable environmental insults) or – of course – helping the poor.