I hear all the time about smaller government. What does it mean? I've asked the question of a few friendly republicans but have not yet gotten a satisfactory answer.
Is it that your republican friends didn't know what small government was, or you didn't like/understand their answer?
I'll give you my answer: Small government means a government that minimizes the amount of control it imposes on its citizens (ie: "just enough" to allow for a civil society to exist, but not "too much"). This goal has to be balanced with an understanding that some amount of government is necessary, but that we should limit the scope of government to just those things it needs to do, as opposed to things it could do.
There's a side aspect of this that addresses the level of government at which various powers should exist. Basically, the idea is that the lower level the government, the fewer citizens its actions affect, the more power each individual citizen has over those actions, and thus the more acceptable greater amounts of power are. Put another way, small government principles might be fine with broad domestic police powers being granted by the local city to their local police force, but *not* to a national police force controlled by the federal government.
Is the goal of a smaller government fewer federal employees, less square feet devoted to government facilities, smaller military, fewer regulations, less tax dollars, a combination of all of these?
Nope. "Size" is measured in impact on the citizens. How many employees isn't the issue. A "big government" is one that has a large number of laws which directly affect all of its citizens in a whole gamut of different ways. A "small government" is one which has fewer laws, which are restricted to fewer aspects of the lives of its citizens, and which may even affect fewer people in any direct way.
This is why, for example, something like military funding is ok, but welfare is not. The military is one of those things a government "must do", while welfare is something it "can do". Also, since the military is restricted to operating against external foes, the existence of a military does not affect the typical citizen that much. Welfare direct affects lots of citizens (which is the whole point). I guess another way of looking at this is that a small (federal) government is one that focuses most of its efforts externally. The more a government focuses inward, the bigger it is (cause it's about direct effects on its own citizens).
How 'small' is small?
Again, it's about minimizing the direct effect the government has on its own citizens. How much does it "meddle" in our lives? Small (again, federal) governments leave the citizens mostly alone (enough structure to allow for laws and courts and whatnot, but most of the details left to lower levels). Big government decide that they must "fix" the lives of their citizens and impose all sorts of broad and far reaching social programs.
Again, it's not just about what governments does, but what level it does it.
What is the ideal 'size' of the government?
Ideally? The federal government should involve itself only with foreign policy (ie: diplomats, treaties, military, etc), interstate affairs (dealing with the states though, not directly with any of the people), and some basic standards setting (weights and measures, rail sizes, stuff like that which helps make the whole "work").
It should not be involved in any way in directly funding education, welfare, public services, or basically anything that citizens directly interact with. The states and cities should be doing that, not the federal government.
Should the size of the government be in respect to the number of citizens, the quality of life, the level of trade and/or technology?
None of the above.
'Smaller government' is just a frilly catchphrase with a barbed hook used to reel in unsuspecting doorknobs that can't see anything beyond the government taking money out of their paltry little paychecks.
Some of us do have a very compete, clear, and consistent understanding of what "small government" means. Unfortunately, that does not mean that every conservative is good at conveying this to others. Add in the unfortunate fact that many liberals actively attempt to spread misinformation about what "small government" means, so as to make it easier to engage in strawman attacks on conservative positions, and it's not that surprising that many people don't really understand what is meant by "small government".
To be clear, sometimes the phrase will be used for different reasons and in different context. Certainly, sometimes when a conservative speaks of small government, he is talking about how much money is being spent, or how many people it employs. But the broader context and consistency is really about direct impact on the citizens. If he's pissed about the money being spent, it's probably more about what he views as wasteful or overly imposing programs funded by that money and/or the tax burden imposed in order to pay for it than just the dollars themselves. If he's going on about how many people are employed, it's probably more about how this affects the private markets and labor and perhaps even what those people are being employed to do (like say administer the aforementioned meddlesome social programs) than just a number of people. And quite often if you look only at that surface complaint and don't look deeper at why
he wants less spending or fewer people in government employ, it can result in oft repeated assumptions of inconsistency or hypocrisy on the part of "small government conservatives. A classic example is the one I mentioned earlier: Where someone will say it's hypocritical for a republican to oppose spending on welfare while not opposing spending on the military. It's not though. Not if you understand that it's about restricting the scope of the government to just those roles it needs to perform and not just about the dollars spent.
I honestly believe that some people intentionally choose not to learn this though. No matter how many times it's explained to them.