The Role of Government
Governments are responsible for making laws and enforcing them, as well as providing services that all people need. The exact nature of those services depends on the type of government. For example, some governments provide healthcare and education. Others provide stability and security in the form of a military, police departments, and mail service. Governments can also provide “public goods”—services that are so important, such as clean air and water, that they cannot be provided by private businesses. Governments can only provide these goods and services if they have the money to pay for them, which they get by collecting taxes from citizens.
The idea of government has evolved over time as different cultures have discovered that they need someone in charge, whether for security or other reasons. The earliest justifications for government revolved around protecting the interests of its citizens. Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” describes a world of unrelenting insecurity without government to protect its citizens from violence. Hobbes’ vision of a “tyrant” as the only alternative is still visible today in many fragile states and largely ungoverned regions of the world.
In the modern era, people began to add another justification for government—providing goods and services that individuals would not otherwise be willing to purchase on their own. Governments are capable of providing these “non-excludable” goods and services because they have a monopoly on the legal use of force. They also have the ability to print money to finance their operations.
As society grew more complex, government roles started to evolve in two ways—taking care of people and making laws. The two functions are related because a government that prioritizes both will need to make and enforce laws in order to take care of its people. Governments also have a role to play in solving problems that the marketplace cannot address, such as managing externalities and market failures, or when a good needs to be protected from its competitors by patents, copyrights, or other means.
Regardless of their specific forms, all governments share some common traits, such as being organized into institutions (branches) with distinct powers and functions. These institutions are called a “separation of powers.” The number of independent branches and the distribution of those powers vary between governments, as do the methods for selecting government officials and candidates.
Governments must also protect citizens’ individual freedoms. They can do this by limiting the extent to which law enforcement can tap their phones or restrict what newspapers may publish. They can also protect citizens from foreign threats and exploitation by imposing borders, regulations on immigration, and other mechanisms to limit smuggling, drugs, and slavery.
At the national level, representatives elected by the people seek to secure funds for state colleges and universities, highways, road repairs, and management of national parks. At the local level, city councils or mayors try to ensure that they have enough money for police departments, fire protection, public libraries, garbage collection, and other services. Local governments may also provide social security, unemployment benefits, and public health services.