Alexis de Tocqueville remarked often in his ''Democracy inAmerica'' on the vigor and energy of the nation's public life outside the sphere of government. He saw that the Americans of the 1830s differed sharply from Europeans in the way they were committed both to a large polity -- an expansive sphere of public engagement and action -- and a small state.
Today, of course, the historic American ideal of limited government is being treated rather rudely. For all the talk of Reagan-era cutbacks, the scope of government is expanding steadily. In fiscal 1991, federal expenditures will exceed 25 percent of GNP, while state and local spending will top 18 percent, a combined total (less intergovernmental transfers) of 42 percent of the nation's product.
We sometimes think of the New Deal era as a time when government got its greatest extension, but this really isn't so. In 1950, after the New Deal and World War II had made their mark, all levels of government expended just $70 billion, 24 percent of GNP. Defense spending was unusually low that year. Still, limiting comparison to non-defense outlays, the last four decades' growth is extraordinary. In a span when real GNP soared, government expenditures as a share of GNP still doubled -- from 19.5 percent for things non-military in 1950, to 36 percent in 1991.
Yet Americans are distinctively inclined, compared to most other industrial democracies, to a limited role for government. The International Social Survey Program opinion surveys found in 1987 just 21 percent of Americans agreeing that ''the government should provide everyone with a guaranteed basic income'' -- the response of 56 percent of West Germans and 61 per- cent of the British. Whereas 82 percent of Italians and 75 percent of the Dutch thought the state should ''provide a job for everyone who wants one,'' just 45 percent of U.S. respondents agreed. Why, then, has government grown so much?
The key is found in the other half of Tocqueville's description -- that the U.S. citizenry, while wanting limited government, favored a vigorous public sector. Not surprisingly, as the country has grown wealthier, expectations have risen for public life. Today, if told they must choose between doing nothing about what they see as a pressing national need -- drug use, the environment, education -- and creating and expanding government efforts in that particular area, most Americans will choose the latter.
The Democratic Party is the uncontested champion of more government. But both parties have often responded to cries of ''Something must be done!'' by signing onto costly programs. jTC the almost irresistible neatness and apparent parsimony of government-centered answers which have made them so politically successful.
Still, it's more than a little ironic that at a time when so much of the world, especially countries where state-centered philosophies were long enthroned, is trying to reduce government's reach -- by strengthening market forces, curbing central planning, privatizing state-owned industries -- the U.S., the historic exemplar of limits upon government, continues, grudgingly, to expand it.
At 42 percent of GNP, government spending in the U.S. is still lower than in Britain and Sweden, but not much lower. Public dissatisfactions are increasing. The energy and initiative of individuals and groups, which America once tapped so successfully, is often dissipated, as bureaucratic initiatives dominate the public sector.
In response to these failures, ideas such as ''empowerment,'' the ''New Paradigm,'' have drawn attention in some circles, including parts of the Bush administration, as less governmental approaches are sought. Painstaking policy analysis and experimentation will be needed before sufficient answers are found.
But what's needed most right now is more explicit recognition that the original American idea was right: The polity and the state must not be seen as coterminous; and if we are to find better solutions to our common problems we must look to a vigorous public life beyond the state.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.