During the last 100 years, the federal government has grown in size, expense and reach far beyond the expectations of its founders. There are thousands of programs, millions of employees, and trillions of dollars dedicated to a multitude of tasks, most of which were never imagined, let alone contemplated, as legitimate functions of republican government. What can account for this?

The seemingly obvious answer is that our experience as a nation demonstrated that there were problems or needs that only the federal government could manage, for it commands the resources of the entire population. But that seems questionable given the fact that for the century and a quarter before that, no similar gargantuan growth occurred.

Defenders of the enlarged federal government point to the rise of large corporations as the primary reason for this phenomenon. Indeed, such an economic development was practically unprecedented, although there were government-imposed monopolies in other times and places.

But if that were the case, the size of the federal government would have leveled off. In fact, other causes seem to operating as well, such as a concern for the physical environment, public health and safety, education, energy, nutrition, housing, and urban development. I could go on, but it is clear that the list is quite long, perhaps even as far as the belief in the efficacy of the federal government stretches.

In fact, the cause comes down less to circumstances than to opinion. The opinion in question is Progressivism, which holds that the federal government should not be restricted to the powers set forth in the United States Constitution, but should "evolve" and "change with the times" so that the conditions of life can be ameliorated for as many people as possible.

For advocates of federal expansion, there are no limits to federal power. When federal employees are telling children what they may eat in their school lunches, it is clear that, as they see it, there is nothing that the federal government may not do.

When we abandon the written Constitution and all reasonable inferences from its text, the sky's the limit. Progressivism, in fact, is in direct conflict with the principles of limited government, including federalism, separation of powers, judicial independence, legislative deliberation and statute making, and even fundamental freedoms.

If this seems exaggerated or simply wrong, consider that the federal government has taken on functions originally assigned to state governments; that the executive branch routinely issues decrees in the absence of clear legislative authorization; that the judicial branch is pilloried whenever it deigns to question the constitutionality of Progressive policies; that Congress barely debates and less often assumes responsibility for its work; and citizens who object are regularly and systematically denounced as ignorant, bigoted and mean spirited.

Our form of government is a republic, meaning at the very least a system in which the people rule through elected representatives rather than in person. Yet the favored mode of Progressives is rule by mobs in the street that intimidate others rather than merely express their point of view.

No one expressed the Progressive sentiment better than former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who responded to questions about the constitutionality of federally mandated health insurance by saying, "Are you serious? Are you serious?" Who, in this enlightened age, Pelosi appeared to be saying, could object to the federal government tending to the public's health?

These days conservative Republican critics contend that they are the party of ideas. This claim would make no sense unless it was the case that the Democratic Party was not. Indeed, it would appear that the Democrats are the party of one idea and one idea only, and that is that nothing can benefit the body politic more than for the federal government to manage our lives.

But the criticism is fair, I think, because the Democratic Party is less dedicated to ideas than it is to a passion for remaking society. Insofar as that is the party's lodestar, it is the equivalent of a religious dogma, never to be questioned and dissenters from which are perpetually to be denounced, if not driven from public life.

This is the price we pay for abandoning our Constitution. Progressives are playing for keeps. So should those of us still devoted to constitutional government.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause"  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net.