At this time in our history, we are debating the merits of small vs. large government. The Republican party claims to be the party of small government. Then there are those that feel both the Democrats and the Republicans have failed to keep government small. Opinions of how large or small the government needs to be range from practical anarchy to totally pervasive and everything in between.
The idea of small or large government is slightly silly, though, mostly because the question then becomes "large or small compared to what?".
The government needs to be large enough to do it's job. Too small and it is ineffective. Too Large and it is inefficient.
The question then becomes what exactly is the job of government?
My personal argument is that government exists to remove impediments from the path of citizens living their lives as they choose, specifically those impediments that would be too great or too burdensome for the average citizen to remove on their own. For instance, it would be very difficult for the citizenry to build an interstate road system without some central co-ordination and funding. Likewise, it would be difficult to keep a standing army without a similar central body.
The question comes, then, where does the line stop? The lack of adequate food and shelter is a great impediment to me living my life. Does this mean the government needs to give me food and a house? Lack of education is an impediment, so do I get an education? A terrorist attack would be a great impediment to my life, so does the government need to prevent those at all costs?
Proponents of small government are in favor of fewer services from and fewer powers required by the Federal Government. Those in favor of larger government are okay with both the services and the powers.
In the United States, this line is ever shifting and is at the discretion of the representatives we elect to run this republic. Right now, there are those that feel government needs to do more in some areas (like global warming and regulating markets) and others who feel it should be doing just as much as it is now or less (by getting out of one's bedrooms, gun cabinets and/or stash).
The Republicans were the champions of smaller government and less day to day interference in our lives. Conversely, the Democrats were in favor of the Government offering more social services, using our combined resources for the benefit of all, even though that meant a larger and more complex bureaucracy. In recent years, the parties have been inconsistent in their positions, or at least when it comes to certain aspects of society. After 9/11, the Republican party became very comfortable with government intrusiveness if it meant catching terrorists and with laws that center on a woman's womb. The Democratic party is very much against the government having much say in social matters like whom one can marry (provided they are a consenting adult human) and when the government gets to look at a person's e-mail.
The bottom line is that the more governance one has is a reflection of a citizenry's inability or unwillingness to take care of itself, either by nature or by circumstance. In some instances in the United States, we've painted ourselves into a corner (how health insurance works, for example) and in others we've pushed government power in an attempt to buy security (i.e. things like the Patriot Act). Control is the friend of security and the enemy of freedom; the need for it exists, but how much of it will remain a constant source of debate.
If we were able to dispense with these realities, it would be because we no longer required them or found them necessary. The problem is that without the foundational work to make that happen, without the structure and ability to see to one's own affairs without the need for a governing body to which one has recourse should things go awry or require arbitration, then all you have is chaos and anarchy in the worst sense.
To put it another way, we shouldn't require government. We have them because the human race is poor at getting along, saying live and let live, and sharing resources. Those who wish smaller government feel that they or that we as a whole are more skilled at it than those who see the need for larger and more powerful central authority to combat injustice and inequality.
The important part, I think, heading into the election, is to stop seeing these disparate positions on the continuum of government power as a diametrically opposed stances of tyrants vs. patriots, but of people trying to insure that the way of life the personally consider best is preserved. We Americans, by and large, have the same goals. We want to take care of our kids, have something to eat in the fridge, a place to sleep at night without fear of dieing by morning and a reasonable assurance that our comfort, security and livelihood will be maintained with reasonable effort and without having to show papers at every border or report to our superior every time we wish to act.
Large or small, we need to not be focused on the size of government, but upon the job of government and ensuring that it has the resources necessary to execute that job. No more, no less.