Andrew Sullivan wrote a couple of years ago:
[C]onservatism as we have known it is now over. People like me who became conservatives because of the appeal of smaller government and more domestic freedom are now marginalized in a big-government party, bent on using the power of the state to direct people's lives, give them meaning and protect them from all dangers.
It's sad to see such a prominent conservative demonstrate such an abysmally poor understanding of conservatism. A person attracted to conservatism because they want a smaller government has either been duped by a political swindler or they simply have no idea what they are doing when it comes to political philosophy.
Or, more likely, both.
Conservatism is not about having a smaller government — never has been, never will be. Conservatism is about conserving: conserving traditions, morals, values, social structures, principles, civilization, etc. Conservatives may differ on what exactly needs to be conserved and why (some for example focus more on religion while others don't), but the one unifying principle that differentiates all conservatives from all non-conservatives is that the conservatives are trying to preserve and conserve something from the past for the future (in a political, social, economic, and/or moral sense).
This does not necessarily mean having a smaller government. On the contrary, it can often mean having a bigger government because sometimes you need more government spending in order to preserve something. A conservative government might, for example, spend money in order to promote traditional beliefs about marriage, procreation, religion, etc., which is one of the ways in which traditional and religious conservatives come together with a common cause. Indeed, religious conservatives are among the few conservatives who are open about this — about specifically trying to conserve the past for the future.
American conservatism has become associated with smaller government because over the past 40 years or so only because liberals have tended to advocate big government programs that have had, as one effect, a negative influence on many traditional social structures. Conservatives could have argued against these programs directly by arguing that they undermined traditions and values that needed to be preserved, not unlike the common religious conservative arguments against gay marriage today, but the general popularity of these programs means that such arguments would lead to electoral losses.
So, conservatives have had to be less honest about what they wanted by framing their arguments around less spending and smaller governments. Instead of openly saying that they wanted to end public education or publicly funded healthcare, most have simply said that they wanted to lower government spending. This apparently led to people like Andrew Sullivan being deceived about the nature of conservatism — which is odd because if anyone were to be educated about the history and nature of conservatism, I would have expected it to be him.
But once again, notice how religious conservatives are more likely to be open about what they intend. You're more likely to find religious conservatives, for example, openly saying that they would like to eliminate the Department of Education and public education generally. When they do so they are regarded as fringe nuts, but the fact is that opposition to government spending and support of smaller government originated as a code for exactly that sort of policy: eliminate large government programs, departments, and institutions so that society can regress back to a time when private institutions — mostly religious — managed public affairs while government sat idly by, impotent to redress grievances or injustices.
This is not an attack on conservatism. The idea of conserving principles and values from the past is not necessarily a bad one. Sometimes it can be, sometimes it isn't. I do not, however, have much time for people who misrepresent conservatism in order to make it appear different from what it really is. Both liberalism and conservatism are compatible with both larger and smaller government, with both more and less government spending, depending on the cultural, historical, economic, and political context. This is basic political philosophy or political science like you'd learn in any introductory college course. There is simply no excuse for errors so basic and fundamental.
What's also very important to pay attention to here is the degree to which religious conservatives are more ready and willing to admit to what their long-term political goals are. That isn't always the case, of course, and it's not because religious conservatives are inherently more honest. I'm not entirely sure why this would happen, but it may be that because they are so open about the religious beliefs which inform their political positions that it wouldn't make much sense to mask their agenda with codes about "smaller government." They make no bones about the fact that there are specific (and of course religious) values, ideals, power relationships, and institutions which they wish to preserve.