How big should the goverment be, and how deeply should it reach into our lives?
The extremes are, on the one hand, a goverment "so small you could drown it in a bathtub" (Grover Norquist) which is, was, and will likely be the goal of the neo-cons that dominated the Bush era. In Thomas Franks' recent book The Wrecking Crew, he took this notion to the nth degree, and makes a fairly decent argument along these lines: The Bush administration was not a failure, it was a success in that its real goal was to destroy the federal government.
On the other hand, we are told, the progressives believe that the answer to every problem is more taxation and centralized spending, and that this will inexorably lead to the socialist state with an enormous central government controlling the economy, health, commerce, travel, education and basically everything else.
It's been suggested by many (Thomas Jefferson among them) that the goverment should do for the people exactly those things (and only those things) that the people cannot do for themselves. Whereas I agree that this is a seemingly reasonable dividing line between public and private concerns, what is often left out of the equation is that this measurement must be re-evaluated in the light of modern life.
For example, the widespread access to sophisitcated digital technology has certainly made people able to do certain things for themselves that they could never have done in the past. On the other hand, there are problems now that individuals can do little to ameliorate on their own, which in the past didn't even exist: Global Warming comes to mind.
Also, we can share the burden on a problem without placing it in the hands of the government. Fraternal organizations, mutual insurance, and organized religion are but a few examples.
I think the real question is separate from the government itself. The government, after all, is a creation, not a natural force. So, I'd say the evaluation we need to make, and remake as each age changes the forces in our lives, is what things we think we can do alone, and what things we must come together to accomplish.
To place this in the context of the current debate, where do we think Health Care fits?