The idea that there is one thing called "government"--and that you can measure it by looking at total spending--makes no sense
You hear all the time that the government must get smaller. John Boehner said it the day after the elections: "We're going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government." Discussing negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, Barack Obama sounded a similar note: "We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck." And a large majority of Americans agree in the abstract (while simultaneously opposing any significant spending cuts).
Conservatives like to point to high levels of federal spending--23.8 percent of GDP last year--as evidence that government is too big. Liberals are less likely to talk about the size of government, but generally prefer a "larger" government that does more things for more people. But the idea that there is one thing called "government"--and that you can measure it by looking at total spending--makes no sense.
First of all, the number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn't tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let's say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government's impact on society.