Federal spending following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has inspired a few commentators to wonder whether big government is back.

At some levels, it most certainly is-if, indeed, it ever went away.

But the current spending surge shouldn't fool anyone. It's appropriate-most of it, anyway-to the extraordinary circumstances of the moment.

It does not repudiate efforts of the past 20 years to keep the state in its place. Indeed, those efforts are more important now than ever.

This is not to say that the US shouldn't increase spending and increase its activity in the economy now. It should. The US has been thrust into war. During war, the state gets more active than it was in the preceding peacetime.

And in this resurgence of state activity the temptation festers to claim that supporters of limited government have been wrong these many years.

It festers because opponents of efforts to constrain the state have mischaracterized those moves as attempts to eradicate the state.

Not so. Where has anyone, other than the occasional fringe anarchist, advocated obliterating the federal government?

What supporters of limited government-of which this writer is one-seek is a state that operates within constitutional bounds, strictly interpreted.

It's not difficult for people who think that way to warm to government growth after terrorist mass murder so clearly challenges the ideals of justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, and liberty articulated in the Constitution's Preamble.

Few supporters of limited government will challenge new spending for direct security measures, such as the military mobilization, activation of reserve forces, and hiring of investigators and air marshals-all essential to a war that most Americans consider necessary and proper.

From there, however, things turn murky.

Some limited-government supporters, for example, worry about a $15 billion bailout for suddenly impoverished airlines.

The appropriation sailed through Congress on a strong argument-that air travel is integral to an economy that must right itself if the US is to sustain the long struggle ahead. But it faced greater challenge than funding for the military mobilization.

Inevitably, other beleaguered industries are staggering to Washington, DC, with their hands out.

Merits of their request aren't the point here. The purpose here is to throw light on the question that Congress will have to address repeatedly in the months ahead: Is this or is this not an appropriate role of the federal government?

For supporters of limited government, relentless attention to that question is the overarching goal.

Democratic institutions answer such questions properly most of the time.

For the world's terrorists, the enduring vitality of those institutions should be cause for grave concern.

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