The Debate is not about the Size of Government

If you follow politics, you probably hear a lot of people saying that the central debate in American politics is about the size of government.

Those people are wrong.

Most of them are not lying, however; they are just repeating something they heard from someone else.  And they even have some evidence for the claim.  After all, the Democrats tend to favor expanding Federal social programs, whereas Republicans favor cutting these programs.

But the tip-off that this really is not the central debate is that sometimes these positions get reversed.  For example, the Republicans generally support increasing military spending, whereas Democrats favor cutting it.  As fielding an army is one of the oldest and most basic functions of government, this clearly shows that the divide is a bit more complex than just some random debate over what percentage of GDP the Federal government outlays should comprise.

“Size of Government” is a vague concept anyway.  What does it mean?  Government outlays as a percentage of GDP?  Number of people employed by the government?  Even then, it’s not like “government” is some monolithic entity–is it spending most of its money on education or on the military, for example?

Then there are those who say the debate is over the “role of government”.  This is so vague that you can’t really call it a lie, but you also cannot call it terribly useful.  The role of government is to govern–the questions are, what kind of society shall it govern, and how shall it govern it?

What's your stake in this, cowboy?