When taking on a major and complex agenda, it’s important to distinguish between goal ‘ and purpose.

The Republicans in Congress are strong on goals but, so far, short on purpose. Balancing the budget is a proper goal; limiting the size and scope of the federal government is the proper purpose. The goal is the means by which you obtain the purpose.

During the first conservative “revolution,” under Ronald Reagan, the purpose was clear, but the goals were not. Reagan skillfully articulated a sense of purpose about limiting the size and scope of the federal government, but he never accomplished much other than the reduction of taxes and a decrease in the rate of government growth. The Gingrich Congress of 1995-96 set all kinds of goals about reducing or even eliminating Cabinet departments, but lacked any kind of articulated purpose other than to balance the federal budget. The federal budget did ultimately balance, but then domestic government spending got more out of control than ever before, first under George W. Bush and later under Obama/Pelosi.

The current Congress faces the same risk. While it’s important to cut programs and prove you’re willing to do so, fiscal discipline is not the overriding purpose. Nancy Pelosi and fellow liberals are already arguing back that cutting government programs will result in the loss of jobs. In some cases, this may actually be true, since government programs do require jobs and pay salaries. What’s the Republican reply to this? It should be: “So what? Government has stolen that money from the private, productive sector. Instead of creating productive jobs in productive businesses that people want, government is taxing people to create jobs for political cronies and pressure groups.”

If your sense of purpose stems from the value of individual rights, capitalism and limited government, you can make this argument. If your central purpose is nothing more than “fiscal discipline” and balancing the budget, you cannot.

In a recent poll, 58 percent of Americans reportedly say that the government should shut down, if necessary, until cuts in programs are made. This suggests that a clear majority of Americans want the budget balanced, even at the cost of shutting down most of what the government currently does. This also suggests that most Americans understand that most of what the federal government does is not all that “essential,” and that shutting most of it down temporarily won’t do any damage. Of course, this was probably the majority viewpoint during the last government shutdown of 1995-96, during the Gingrich Congress in the Clinton era. It didn’t stop that same majority of Americans from reducing Republican control of Congress, and handing Clinton a decisive reelection victory just two years later.

Clearly, Americans were confused. And Democrats like Nancy Pelosi are counting on the fact they still are. The confusion stems from the false belief that it’s desirable and possible to cut the budget without limiting the size and scope of government. That’s why you get such mixed messages from the American electorate. “Out of control deficit spending? Stop it, at once!” And at the same time: “Cut programs that I like? Cut programs that sound reasonable? No way. That’s heartless and cruel.” I keep thinking about the story of President Ronald Reagan (true, so far as I know) in the White House in the 1980s saying, “Well, we can’t cut school lunches. Put that back in the budget.” Heart over reason will not balance the budget. But the issue is deeper and wider than that. Limited government does not mean forcing some parents to pay for the lunches of other parents’ kids. Limited government does not mean working citizens paying for the retirement benefits of nonworking citizens. Limited government does not mean a government-run health care system in which the bureaucracy tells you to take a number and wait, unless you’re politically connected.

Arguably 80 percent of what the federal government does, it should not be doing. Now there’s a way to balance the budget very quickly. But it’s an argument nobody, even among conservatives to date, has had the courage to make. And admittedly, they’d probably be crushed in an election if they did. That’s why America is floundering and will ultimately fail — unless or until it comes to embrace this argument.

I’d love to hear the Speaker of the House and other Republicans in Congress go on television, and before Congress, and say, “Look. It’s not just about balancing the budget. It’s about limiting the size and scope of the federal government. The original American Constitution and Declaration of Independence promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — not happiness itself. It’s up to each individual American to take responsibility for acquiring what he or she defines as personal happiness. It’s not government’s job to make people happy. Government can provide safety and security by protecting you from violent or fraudulent criminals. But the rest is up to you.”

This would be a Wizard of Oz moment, if ever there was one. Remember the end of the Wizard of Oz, where the Great Oz turns out to be just a man who offers some wisdom but leaves the rest up to you?

This story is such a part of the folklore of American culture. But most Americans don’t seem to have absorbed it. How many more faux Saviors such as Obama must we endure before they do?