GORHAM – Conservative voices endlessly extol the virtues of small and limited government, but they fail to comprehend the realities of such societies.

Over the past year, I have lived in Central America and Southeast Asia, where I experienced the consequences of limited government in poor countries.

If conservatives understood what life is like in such places, I doubt that they would be so eager to impose a small government, with limited services, in our own country.

Some examples:

Education: In these countries, only those few with enough money can afford the luxury of an education, while the others have to go without.

Public schools are nonexistent or of such poor quality — think half-day sessions, untrained teachers and 50 children to a classroom — that little learning is achieved.

Forget about a university education, as these slots are reserved for the few and privileged. Scholarships, loans and grants are unknown.

Infrastructure: Roads are limited, narrow, rough and unpaved.

Mudslides, rain and poor maintenance close the roads for weeks at a time, as there is no money for repairs. Communities are cut off from food, water and essential services for long periods.

Bridges are unsafe and in danger of collapse.

Public transportation is crowded and dangerous — there are no vehicle inspection programs or equipment upgrades.

Safe drinking water is expensive and beyond the budget of most families, so waterborne parasites are common.

Health care: The health care system is rudimentary or missing outside of the major city hospitals.

Illness and disease are rampant. Drugs are unavailable or too expensive for most people.

Those who get sick must rely on care from friends or family because they don’t have access to health care.

Life expectancies are short, chronic disease is common and the suffering is intense.

Environment: Air pollution is a hazard because there are no legal requirements for mufflers or catalytic converters on vehicles and they spew raw diesel exhaust into the air, causing serious breathing difficulties.

Few laws restrict the burning of fields, so small fires pollute huge areas of the countryside as the smoke from the fires settles in the valleys where people live.

Wood is used for cooking fuel in homes, without chimneys, and lung diseases are widespread.

Law enforcement: Police officers and the national armies are small, poorly equipped and notoriously corrupt, and they focus their resources on protecting the wealthy and powerful.

Crimes against people are common, but reporting them to the police may result in extortion or further crime.

Women seldom go to the police for fear of sexual assault or extortion. Payoffs and bribes to police for “protection” are common, because officers are poorly paid.

Poverty: Poverty is widespread because there are few ways for people to earn money. They support their families through farming, tourism or small entrepreneurial activities.

There are few businesses to employ people, and these jobs are typically available only to people with some level of education. The majority barely survive in subsistence conditions.

The governments provide little or no help because they are too small and ineffective to provide needed services or to enforce laws. It’s not that the laws don’t exist, but rather that there are no mechanisms or incentives to enforce the laws that support a functional society.

Countries with small, ineffective governments cannot provide even the most basic services — services that we expect and demand from our government.

By contrast, citizens of countries with large and active governments (and, yes, higher taxes) enjoy more secure, prosperous and healthy lives — lives that most citizens of countries with small governments can only envy but never experience.

The lesson for all of us, especially conservatives, is: Beware of what you wish for, because it may come as a shock.

The reflexive demands for lower taxes and limited government are not consistent with a society that wants to enjoy a higher quality of life for all its citizens — not just the wealthiest few.

Taxes and a robust government are the price we pay for the privileges, services and security that we enjoy and demand.

Bruce Webb is a resident of Gorham.