Over at the American Conservative, Paul Gottfried has a highly useful piece debunking the increasingly popular, Glenn Beck-driven narrative that posits Progressivism as the beginning of Big Government, if not indeed the monolithic source of all evil.
You should read the whole thing.
In the meantime, I'd like to highlight—and take slight issue with—Gottfried's conclusion, where he concedes: "The Progressives prepared the first tiny steps on a long journey that has resulted in a much bigger government than most of those early 20th-century figures planned to give us."
Gottfried is right about the "tiny steps," but the Civil War sesquicentennial should remind us about the true origin of Big Government—and in such a way that might stop many conservatives short of condemning it outright.
As George Will wrote in 1988: "The Civil War established federal supremacy as a fact, not a theory, and was followed by federal initiatives concerning banking, currency, land, transportation, tariffs, higher education, and other matters that prompted national integration. The next two great nationalizers [Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt] were this century's two greatest presidents."
If not for the Civil War, we would not be "one nation, under God." We would still be "these," not "the," United States. There would be no basis from which to conjure the concept of "national greatness," and certainly no country with the industrial might to repel Hitler and help topple the Soviet empire.
Jefferson, with his vision of an "empire of liberty," glimpsed this reality—that's why he leapt at the chance of committing an extraconstitutional act with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France.
It's true that there's a faction of conservatives that at least semi-seriously fantasizes about tilling acreages in a weakly-integrated, sparsely-populated rural Jeffersonian republic. But most of us have come to grips with, and embraced, what we became after the Civil War—a commercial republic with a strong central government that did not leave industry alone, but actively promoted it: that is, a big government and a dynamic marketplace.
Of course, none of this means that such a government doesn't have to pay its bills.