WASHINGTON — THE ISSUE: It’s the Goldilocks conundrum of American politics: Is the federal government too big, too small or just right?

Few think it’s just right. Ever since the first Americans bucked their colonial overlords in Britain, America has been wrestling with the delicate balance between a government that creates opportunity and one that inhibits it.

Every four years, the presidential election offers a referendum on whether Washington should do more or less. Traditionally, Republicans have been viewed as the party of smaller government. This year, it’s not so simple.


WHERE THEY STAND

It’s no secret Donald Trump likes things huuuuge. Whether that applies to Uncle Sam remains to be seen.

Trump favors cutting government regulation that he says stifles businesses. He’s talked about doing away with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department. Trump has also promised massive tax cuts, but fiscal conservatives flinch at the trillions of dollars his plan is expected to heap onto the national debt.

Unlike most conservatives, Trump supports eminent domain — the government’s right to seize property with compensation. He wants to replace “Obamacare,” but has said government-run health care “could have worked in a different age.” And don’t forget that gigantic Mexico border wall he wants to build, estimated to cost taxpayers billions. Trump says it’ll be Mexican taxpayers footing the bill, a claim his critics and Mexico laugh off.

Hillary Clinton hasn’t focused heavily on cutting government spending in her campaign either. To the contrary, she’s vowed new spending on college education, infrastructure and other programs that could grow the size of government. While Clinton has said taxes would go up for the wealthy to help pay for it, independent analyses have shown her plans would increase the debt in the long term.

On the other hand, Clinton’s vision for government is a far cry from that of Bernie Sanders, her defeated primary opponent whose plans for education and health care would have caused government to swell if implemented.


WHY IT MATTERS

The tentacles of government reach into every aspect of our lives: The roads we drive on, the schools our kids attend, the dollar bills we spend. Government creates and protects national parks and provides health care for our veterans, the indigent and the elderly. And operates a military to protect the country.

Government also takes our money — lots of it. For the 2016 budget year that ends Sept. 30, the federal government is expected to take in $3.3 trillion in revenues while spending $3.8 trillion, according to a recent White House report. That means the government will rack up roughly $600 billion in debt, adding to the more than $19 trillion burden already saddling taxpayers of the future.

At its heart, the debate about government’s reach pits the innately human desire to know your basic needs will be cared for against the equally human desire to be left alone.

Small-government proponents want Washington out of as many parts of daily life as possible, preferring to let individuals or states make up their minds. They abhor regulations that tell you how to educate your kids, what chemicals your business can use and what kind of health insurance you have to buy.

Proponents for more government believe Americans have a responsibility to each other to make sure everyone has a chance to prosper regardless of what circumstances are thrust upon them, even if it means the community must make sacrifices. And they warn the risks of too-little government are real, like lax oversight that allowed lead pipes to taint the water in Flint, Michigan.

For the last few decades, polls have found Americans generally feel frustrated by the federal government and think it’s wasteful, with only small numbers saying they’re content. Late last year, 53 percent in a Pew Research Center poll said they’d prefer a smaller government that offers fewer services, compared with 38 percent who wanted more government doing more. A smaller government sounds good to a lot of people until they’re asked what specific services they are willing to do without.


This story is part of AP’s “Why It Matters” series, which will examine three dozen issues at stake in the presidential election between now and Election Day. You can find them at: http://apnews.com/tag/WhyItMatters

EDITOR’S NOTE _ One in an AP series examining issues at stake in the presidential election and how they affect people