A simple explanation:
When conservatives espouse the idea of “small government”, it makes no sense on the face of it. We all know that when conservatives gain unchecked power, they almost invariably go for totalitarian governments, which are typically anything but “small” when it comes to deciding what people can and cannot do with their lives.
However, it does make sense when you realize that “small” in this case means two things:
1. A very small number of people actually run the government. Ideally, everything is run by a single person (whether a king or a president is more or less arbitrary), but this is often impractical, so a small number of people, all united by a common belief in Values, Faith, Nation, and Power, may assist the One;
2. A very small number of people are actually involved in the process of government establishment and structure. That is, very few people are allowed to vote. This is in line with the hardcore opposition to universal suffrage displayed by all conservatives before the Russian revolution, when the fear — imagined or real — that the slaughter of the bourgeoisie and propertied classes there would be repeated across the world finally dragged the conservatives kicking and screaming to their present uneasy acceptance of democracy.
Only seen from this perspective can the history of conservatism be reconciled with their present obsession with pretending to be anti-government and pro-liberty.