One of my jobs is working with an anti-bullying non-profit organization, so I've got plenty of rants/praises, especially on un(der)funded mandates to cash-strapped states and local districts.[deleted long rant on the wonders of public education- whatever's mom is a teacher ]
On the wider debate, I've always viewed government in a somewhat Hobbesian way, as a pragmatic institution that fills a void in providing security and necessary services in a "not too bad" way. Democracy in one form or another tends to be the "least bad" system on average, so I support it, but I don't get dewy eyed. One area the government fills in is keeping a wider view than any individual or company wants to. A company is quite capable of thinking long-range, but is narrow focused, while individuals simply don't have the clout themselves or the time to band together. A government, in its own bloated and inefficient way, can provide a wider view of "common good" than companies while having more authority than individuals.
Where I toe a more conservative line is in the "how" of it. I believe that governments have a perfectly legitimate right to enforce the will of the people in regulations and codes of conduct, and even that they can move much quicker on emergency situations (see FEMA when organized right), but long-term, large scale federal programs tend to act as The Blob, taking on people for a good reason today and just keeping them around out of sheer apathy. This then leads to layers and layers of bueracrats whose sole existence is simply to exist, buried unnoticed in an insane tangle of accountability with utterly no transparency.
Far better to take the route of incentivising private organizations and lower-level governments through funded mandates and government grants, with a thin, flat layer of federal bueracracy existing primarily to provide accountability for the programs and mandates. I have always believed that, since all politics are local, most programs should be as local as possible too. Now this isn't a rigid ideology, but my starting question always comes around to "why not do it this way?" If there's a valid answer, I'm always willing to take it into account.
Oh and no unfunded mandates! If you can't fund your own orders, then what makes you think anyone below you can? Maybe there's a short term excuse for this, but in the long term all it does is pile up problems. If the budget can't afford it, try to raise taxes. If the public won't go for that, shuffle priorities. Pretending like its free just makes the problem worse, and borrowing for it just defers the cost until later. Pay up or shut up.