The Nature of Government
Government is the activities and methods of directing the affairs of a state, community, or society. Government includes all the structures and agencies of a nation, from local police forces to the military. It also encompasses the social programs of a country, such as food and housing assistance for poor families. The nature of government varies widely. It depends on the ideals embraced by a society and the extent to which those values conflict with one another. If, for example, a society values national security over liberty, the government may allow law enforcement agencies to tap citizens’ phones and restrict what newspapers can publish.
Among the most important functions of government is providing security, in the form of the military and other police services. Government also provides public goods such as education, transportation, and mail service. It provides essential services such as health care and fire prevention, and it offers aid to the needy through unemployment benefits, welfare programs, and food stamps. Government also enforces laws and regulations to protect the environment, consumers, and businesses. Proponents of these policies argue that they are necessary to provide a safe society. Critics say they lead to crony capitalism and discourage innovation.
The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle envisioned many forms of government, including the government of one (an autocracy), the government of a select few people or elites (an aristocracy), and the government of the whole people (a democracy). Modern governments vary in the number of institutions that constitute the branches of their government and the distribution of powers within them.
One of the most controversial issues is whether government should have a role in providing for its citizens’ social welfare, or be limited to the protection of individuals and property. The United States has a long tradition of providing such social programs, including job training, welfare assistance, and medical insurance. Many European countries have similar programs. These programs are often expensive, however. They may distort the economy by encouraging some people to depend on government handouts, and they may create a dependence on the government that can be dangerous in times of economic crisis.
Another important issue is the degree to which a government should interfere in the private lives of its citizens. The government should respect individual autonomy, while enforcing the law and protecting its citizens from exploitation, writes James Madison in Federalist No. 51. Madison argued that the best way to prevent politicians from grabbing too much power is to make it difficult for them to do so by structuring the government in ways that encourage rival factions to compete with each other for control of the government.
Some of these competing interests are so great that they can cause conflicts of interest, or what is known as “regulatory capture.” When regulators become so dependent on a particular industry for funding that they no longer serve the public interest, it has been said that they have lost their ability to function independently of the companies they regulate. In such cases, the regulator becomes captive to that industry and may create barriers to competition or even bail out the industry from financial crises at the expense of consumers.