The end of Ted Kennedy's long sojourn among us, splendidly splashed by the media, opened the renewed discussion of whether it's time that big government, in the Kennedy mode, came back.
The late senator's eulogists -- in politics and the media, not to mention at the funeral -- tended to nod their heads enthusiastically. We needed the big ideas and projects of the senator's legacy for the sake of justice and the future. It was time to get wealth controlled, poverty vanquished and health care extended to all. The latter we had to do (so West Virginia's Sen. Robert Byrd assured us) as a memorial to the senator, who made universal health care the cause of causes.
Anyone in the mood for big, costly government is entitled under the First Amendment to talk it up, but they shouldn't expect automatic rallying around just on account of Ted Kennedy's election to another realm of existence. For that to happen, we'd have to conclude that big government, in the style laid out for our enthusiastic inspection of the Obama administration, has something to do with solving problems.
In the general understanding, big doesn't always mean better. It means big. Big, in turn, can mean various things: costly, expensive, gaudy, efficient or powerful. That last one -- powerful -- is the attribute on which we might focus. How much power do we mean to concede to government, so that it might be beneficial?
The political motif from the Reagan years -- running really through the '90s ("The era of big government is over," says W. J. Clinton) -- was that government was as much hindrance as help. Often enough, government was less help than bother and mess. The Obama supporters want to wrench that formulation around: Make us see government as an undisguised blessing. Is it, though? It depends on what you want government to do. Fight wars? Yes. Regulate interstate commerce? Yes, mostly. Administer justice and contribute to the relief of misery? Yes, yes. Make and sell automobiles. No! No!
Now we work into another mode. Shall government equalize incomes? No! Define meticulously how business may operate? No! Control access to health care? Never! The Declaration of Independence breathes distrust of government. It's in our DNA.