As the caucuses and primaries in various states get underway for this year’s election season, the American people are once again reminded — as they are every election year — of the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two parties lies in what they believe the role of government should be. The conventional Beltway wisdom states that the GOP generally wants to reduce the presence of government while the Democrats typically prefer the government to have a larger role.

In America, debates about government often revolve around the idea that smaller “government” is inherently good because it increases the freedom of citizens, immediately putting Democrats on the defensive with the burden of justifying any expansion of government — ostensibly because “big government,” by definition, deprives citizens of necessary freedoms. The framework of these debates is unsurprising because America was founded on, among other beliefs, skepticism of government control. Therefore, trying to expand government is usually a losing battle.

But the aforementioned debate presents American citizens with a false choice — less government and more freedom, or more government and less freedom. Rarely do Democrats make the case that a larger government can actually liberate citizens. For example, more stringent environmental regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency can lead to cleaner air and water for everyone. If the kids want to go outside and play in the nearby river, parents can worry less about whether the air and water is being contaminated by the disposal of factory waste upstream and more about spending quality time with family. Likewise, raising food inspection standards allows people to buy whatever they want at the supermarket without having to worry about health hazards every time they purchase meat. I would argue that expansion of government in these two areas helps freedom flourish because Americans are freed from unnecessary burdens.

Of course, arguments can be made about how these regulations affect a corporation that might own the upstream factory. The common conservative perception of regulations is that they are, unequivocally, shackles on economic production. Republicans trumpet this line almost as reliably as Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown. However, data from the recent past says otherwise. According to a Harvard economics study as reported in The Guardian in Nov. 2011, the Clean Air Act of 1970 was directly responsible for a 1.5% increase in the U.S.’s 2010 gross domestic product. The article goes on to say that the GDP increase is likely because healthier children grow to be more productive as adult workers — makes too much sense, right?

But even if the GOP has its own data to implicate environmental regulations as economic hindrances, what’s undeniable is that large corporations have been earning record profits in recent history — even in President Barack Obama’s “socialist” America — according to the operating earnings of S&P 500 companies (Interesting Note: Record profits are not translating much to increased hiring … remind me how supply-side economics works again?). Furthermore, helping out cash-laden corporations at the expense of struggling common folk doesn’t convey a very populist message, a message that Republicans have been claiming to represent forever.

Can regulations be good for the general public, as well as the economy and corporations? This question is definitely a tough realization for conservatives to swallow, and the facts apply to other situations too. Armed with the knowledge that healthier people are more productive, universal healthcare — a monstrous enlargement of government — seems like a good idea, economically and otherwise. Perhaps people can live more freely when they don’t have to worry about an injury or disease bankrupting their family with medical bills. On Wall Street, government regulations and oversight — like the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — enable average people to live with a certain peace of mind because they are protected from abusive and fraudulent bank practices.

No one in either party wants a tyrannical government that runs roughshod over its citizens. But how much better off are everyday people if banks and corporations are the ones doing the trampling? One of government’s basic jobs is to protect citizens from threats of all varieties. Preventing the government from doing this job exposes citizens to free market cruelties that are not in the interest of the general public. For example, predatory lending by banks or insurance companies that drop customers once they need expensive treatment. An effective government is clearly vital to freedom. If “effective” necessitates “larger,” so be it.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @DWChen_MDaily.

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