The T-Party reactionaries, as an article of faith, decry the rise of central government and its power. Liberals praise it as a force for good. The radical or liberal should ask whose intrest, the ruling elites, or the people, does it serve ?
Government growth was a by product of a changing economy. Even hide bound reactionaries like failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork admit this. He said of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, "was framed by men who did not forsee the scope,technolgies and intricate interdependence of today's economy."
Their is a mythical time ,circa 1765, a good old days of limited government in the imagination of the T-Party. Of course, this romanticization leaves out details like slavery, voting restricted to property owning whites , women as chattel and Native American people viewed as vermin to be removed for the profit of land speculators like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson all of whom became President.
The history of conservatism and status quo shows that ruling elites are not always opposed to government intervention if it suits their intrests. Virginia is a laboratory of government aid to business. Defense contracting and its spinoffs are the second biggest industry in Virginia.
Talk about limited government may play well with voters in the Virginia outback. But in vote rich Northern Virginia where the Feds are the main employer, not so much. Ditto the Hampton Roads area with its military Keynesian economics.
Conservative ruling elites have used government power and intervention to further their goals since the inception of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson advocated small government and believed in strict construction of the Constitution. He was unsure that he had the power to buy Louisiana from the French.
Not only did he put his Constitutional qualms aside in the land purchase, he used it as a vehicle to expand slavery. Fellow revolutionary, Thomas Paine, wrote an impassioned letter to Jefferson to disallow slavery expansion in the new territories. Jefferson ignored Paine even though the revolutionary phase Jefferson had advocated ending slavery.
The slave owning South used the Federal government as its slave catcher with Fugitive slave laws, favorable court decisions and legislation called compromises that expanded slave power.
In the North, new industries were protected by tariffs introduced by Federal legislation.
However, the abolitionist pro-humanity forces tried to enlist government on their side. Abolitionists and their reps in Congress advocated any number of attempts to blunt or eliminate slavery.
Increased centralization and the use of Federal power harnessing industry allowed the North to abolish slavery via the Civil War. Federal power through the 13th,14th and 15th Amendment abolished slavery and attempted to put African Americans on parity with whites. At times, the Feds intervened against the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ultimately, the tides of class intrest shifted. Federal non-intervention, Supreme Court rulings, allowed the antebellum aristocracy to assert itself.
At the same time, government power was being used to aid industrial expansion via the railroads. Native Americans were cleared so the American heartland could be opened to land speculators and farmers.
In the post Civil War period, labor unions to give voice to workers rights, health and safety arose. Government power was reguarly used against strikers in the form of military intervention, legislation, courts. It was not until the 1930s and the New Deal that organized labor had its intrests recogonized.
In the 1960s, New Dealism reached its peak power under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson a child of the Depression, was very sincere about his use of federal power to help people. His leadership pushed through Civil Rights bills to finally end the war the South lost militarily but won politically by defeating Reconstruction a 100 years earlier.
In addition, Johnson and the Democratic Party pushed social legislation and Federal power in the War on Poverty. This series of Federal aid programs for job training ,housing and general poverty elimination was opposed by the usual Southern ruling elites and small government advocates.
Generally, the left saw the War on Poverty as the use of government for the good of the people.
However, there were dissident voices on the left. Famed community organizer and former labor organizer Saul Alinsky was one. Alinsky thought people should win power not by government grants but by building their own institutions of power.
" Bureaucrats have jails, " Alinsky quipped.
Many on the New Left saw the povery programs as oppurtunistic attempts to co-opt the rising militancy of the people. The New Left critique called them "designed to fail " and leave the illusion of power.
On balance, the shifting tides have favored the ruling elites in government. However, this hegemony is often broken by radicals and reformers.
The end results of the size of government are usually immaterial. If the people's intrests could be served by small government, the pragmatic radical or liberal would welcome it. The same with large government.
But in the end, the much aligned Machiavelli wins. Its about power in government.