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The Essential Functions of Government

The Essential Functions of Government

Government is an institution that makes and enforces laws, collects taxes, provides public services and manages natural resources. Governments also provide the common goods that all citizens need but cannot create themselves, such as national security and education. Because of its unique ability to pool resources, compel compliance and create law, government is needed to protect the well-being of all citizens. This is why there are different levels of government—federal, state and local—to ensure that policies and regulations are implemented effectively throughout a country.

The most fundamental role of government is to protect citizens from violence. This is the oldest justification for government, as exemplified by Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan”: without a strong central authority to maintain law and order, citizens would be at the mercy of each other and foreign invaders. The horrors of this scenario are seen every day in war-ravaged states and essentially ungoverned territories.

Governments must also be the provider of goods and services that individuals cannot produce themselves, such as military defense, fire departments, roads and schools. Government entities raise money for these purposes by charging fees and taxes or by selling securities, such as bonds, to the public. When cash flows from these sources are insufficient to fund the desired level of activity, government bodies often borrow money.

Another key function of government is to distribute income and wealth among the citizenry. Whether by raising or lowering taxes, or by redistributing incomes via social programs, governments must determine how to allocate their limited resources to maximize the benefits for the largest number of people. This is a complex task that requires an understanding of competing priorities and values, as well as the skill to devise and implement policy.

Many of the decisions made by government bodies are based on a combination of economics and morality. For example, if the government prioritizes national security over individual liberty, it may be willing to authorize the tapping of private phones and restrict what newspaper outlets can publish. In contrast, if the government emphasizes egalitarianism and the destruction of socioeconomic inequalities, it will place a greater emphasis on expanding public education and housing for poor families. Whatever choices are made, Peabody writes that there are a few essential norms that must be respected in the process. These include mutual toleration (accepting opponents as legitimate, even if one vehemently disagrees with them), transparency (allowing citizens full access to the government’s decision-making processes and records) and self-limitation by elected officials of their use of the power of government. This helps keep politicians accountable to the people they represent.