The phrase "small government" or "limited government" refers to the idea of reducing the scope of governmental power, typically by reducing the amount of funding it receives. Advocates of this idea often see government as inherently evil because it has an intrinsically coercive nature.
"Small government" advocacy is often predicated on the idea that government is bloated, inefficient, and exploitative -- which many parts of it certainly are -- but then turns around and advocates for the reduction or dissolution of parts of it that are either efficient or essential, rather than the parts which best represent the first part of the argument.
Example: most people agree with the idea of reducing funding for (1) overseas military aggression and (2) fossil fuel subsidies, but "small government" advocates are more likely to argue for "austerity" in the form of reductions to social programs.
Small government advocacy is primarily a tool of the powerful (plutocrats), aimed at destroying the only thing that prevents them from freely exploiting the weak. It ignores the fact that government is a tool, and any tool can be misused. (Small government advocates often repeat Ronald Reagan's statement that government is the problem. This is certainly true for the powerful, but for most people it is the reverse.)
In the United States, this typically means reducing the relative size of the federal government compared to that of the state governments, with the presumption that this would allow the states more freedom to make decisions for their own jurisdictions.
A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have....
This idea seems appealing in many ways and indeed would provide a number of benefits:
- Reduced ability for the government to wage war; popular support would be required.
- Less paperwork, less bureaucracy, fewer arbitrary rules.
- Less fear of having one's rights violated by the government.
There are, however, also a number of serious flaws with the idea as most commonly stated:
- The total absence of any kind of government is anarchy, a power vacuum, which is not a stable condition; it ultimately devolves into some form of feudalism.
- Small government advocates do not seem to have a clear idea of what a satisfactory level of government would be, or how it would be regulated.
- Small government advocates generally do not seem to recognize that many people currently depend on the government services which would go away if government were "downsized", or at least do not recognize the legitimacy of such dependence; they are ready to "tear the house down before a new one is built".
For a structured examination of these and other pros and cons of small government, see /debate.