The Purpose of Government

The Modern Survival Guide #45

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And if I have strong opinions on any given subject, it’s this one. Buckle up folks — we’re back to politics, and more precisely the point of politics: government.

Let me start with a quick cards-on-the-table moment: I am a moderate liberal. I have reasons why. If that’s not your cup of tea, please read this article anyway, because I tried my best to write this from a nonpartisan perspective, and I’ll warn you when I start saying liberal things. There’s enough echo chambers on the internet already; at least hear me out.

So — almost everyone has stood in line at the DMV, or gone to the courthouse to pay a fine, or signed up for a fishing license at WalMart, or done any one of a hundred other things that come with a government presence, and asked: “Why the hell do we do this, anyway? Why do we pay for this? What is government good for? What’s the point?”

Well, the answer is that there are things that our government (in its many forms) should do. These are actions that are central to our survival as a democracy, and more particularly, (LIBERAL VIEW) our survival in a democracy that is actually a decent place to live for most people.

There are at least seven purposes of legitimate government, and they break down into the following categories:

  • Mutual Defense
  • Resource Allocation
  • Law and Order
  • Protection of Persons and Property
  • Protection of Freedoms
  • Provision of Public Goods
  • Social Justice/Fairness

We’re going to talk about each one of these. Hold onto your hats; this might be dry stuff if you’re not politically minded. But especially if you’re not politically minded, I would advise you to read the rest of this article, because what you think government ought to do has a very real and very immediate bearing on your survival and prosperity. And since we vote for the government in the US, it helps to know what it’s supposed to do, if only so you can judge what it’s actually doing.

#1: MUTUAL DEFENSE

This is the first and most basic function of any government — organizing society in such a way that we defend one another from external attack. Whether that attack comes from the tribe in the next valley over, the nation next door, or space aliens from Mars, a key feature in any and all legitimate governments is that they have and maintain the ability to protect their citizenry from violent rivals.

This is probably how ancient governments got started in the first place, back when most examples of “government” more closely resembled street gangs or tribes (there’s not a lot of difference). Mutual defense is the foundation of the simplest forms of government: tribes and feudal systems.

#2: RESOURCE ALLOCATION

The old saying is that “many hands make light work.” Shortly after early societies banded together for mutual protection (or perhaps immediately before, it’s hard to tell) they realized that contributing to a central pot of resources makes it possible to direct a large amount of resources toward large projects (like armies).

This is the philosophy behind taxation, and it’s a central function of all governments. Centralizing resources make it possible for a small group of people to have a large impact on society.¹ This is necessary in order to accomplish big things, because while many hands make light work, many bosses make for confused direction.

Resource centralization is a government function precisely because governments are capable of taxation, concerned with national problems, and can provide a concerted response to large problems. They are in many cases the only organizations with the ability or will to consolidate resources to a sufficient degree to accomplish certain projects.

It is very, very difficult for smaller organizations to find the resources and willpower to handle things like large-scale disaster relief, for example. Charities have a tendency to run out of funds at inopportune moments, and often falter on the follow-through because they only focus on particular parts of the problem. But the aggregated resources available to a government are able to provide sustained, deliberate assistance.

These first two factors (shared defense and centralized resources) were the basis for most ancient styles of governments. You had a tribe, fiefdom, or city built on the concept of collective defense (or, sometimes, collective offense) with a ruler or small oligarchy that was able to bring a certain proportion of their society’s resources to bear on particular projects that benefited the group. While the institutions have changed, these remain core governmental functions.

#3: LAW AND ORDER

Moving up a tier in complexity, as societies grew and evolved it became necessary to enforce common standards of behavior. A strongman can enforce his will over a village by direct intervention; a king needs laws because he can’t be everywhere at once to tell people how to do things. Modern democracies have the same issue and the same obligation to make law.

Laws exist to provide order, a state of affairs in which rules are followed, people engage in activities that can be described as “normal,” and consequences of actions have predictable outcomes. Law is the vehicle for order, and is characterized by widely promulgated, known, accepted, and enforced standards of behavior.

Order is desirable because it enables planning and investment (in both time and resources) in business and personal activities. If you’re uncertain about whether the social conditions that underpin society (like the idea of private property) are going to stay the same, that reduces your incentive to do things that depend on those conditions (like buy a house). An orderly system — almost any orderly system — provides some certainty.

Governments are the normal method of creating law and order for simple reasons: authority and enforcement.

It has historically been more attractive and easier for a society to have one set of authoritative (commonly acknowledged as valid) rules or laws, and one authoritative enforcer of the law. Having multiple sets of laws creates uncertainty and conflict, as does having multiple enforcers of the law.

At the same time, enforcement of the law requires force-backed authority (because people are not angels). It’s all very well to pass a law, but you have to be able to punish those who break it as well, otherwise the law has no practical meaning. Therefore one of the earliest and most often cited roles of government is to be the only legitimate force-backed authority in a society. This was true for early monarchies and other authoritarian systems, and it remains true for today’s democracies.

Application of law and order is ideally impartial; the rule of law, in which no person is above the law and the law treats everyone equally, is central to modern states. Without this caveat, government just becomes oppression and tyranny.

To address this issue, in the US the creation of law is the province of the legislature and its enforcement is the prerogative of the executive branch, while its use to decide disputes (and decisions on its applicability) is the realm of the court system. Keeping different facets of the law spread across several systems helps keep any one of them from dominating it.

#4: PROTECTION OF PERSONS AND PROPERTY

Moving up another tier of complexity, we arrive at purposes of government that are unique to democracies and benevolent autocracies.² The first of these is an emphasis on protection of persons and personal property.

This kind of protection is fundamentally different from that provided by mutual defense, which is more aimed at protecting the nation as a whole from armies and raiders. Protection of persons is, instead, all about preventing individual citizens from coming to harm, and preventing authorities from arbitrarily hurting citizens.

Protection of persons is important because, again, this is a stabilizing and humane force in society. It is much easier and more fun to go about daily life without having to worry about someone stabbing you. This sort of thing is good for societies and economies in equal measure.

Similarly, protection of property is a necessary purpose of advanced governments. In this sense, protection of property indicates that government exists in part to prevent people’s property from being stolen or appropriated without due cause. This is, again, very good for both society and economics. It is much easier to conduct both life and business if you know who controls which resources, and have reasonable expectations for how they are traded and used.³

This principle of protection explains the most common examples of government-in-action you are likely to see on a daily basis — private property, centralized currency, fire departments, and police. This also explains a lot of the things you don’t see frequently, but arguably have a larger impact on your life — product regulations, safety requirements, and zoning law, to name a few.

(LIBERAL VIEW) Additionally, these principles of protection explain more far-reaching government actions, like environmental laws and complex trade agreements. Many of these laws and treaties extend the principle of protection to rather arcane disciplines of science and economics, with the aim of shielding the populace (or at least the majority of the populace) from less tangible threats.

#5: PROTECTION OF FREEDOMS

All of this, in a modern democracy, is tied into the citizenry’s personal freedoms. It is now one of the primary roles of all legitimate democratic governments and, to a more limited extent, some benevolent autocracies to defend personal freedoms (although this is of course in constant tension with government actions because freedom is messy, and many governments prefer things simple and orderly).

In the US, our personal freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution, the Constitutional Amendments, Constitutional Law, and several lesser laws that have been passed over the years. A primary role of the Department of Justice (when it is operating correctly) is to defend those freedoms on the behalf of the citizenry. When it fails, this becomes a non-governmental function of organizations like the ACLU.

Freedoms are a point of tension in all democracies because, of course, laws passed by the legislature may and often do infringe on personal freedoms. It is often in the interests of the government to limit freedoms, and therefore although it is a role of the government to defend freedoms, it is also necessary to have checks and balances on government authority.

Nonetheless, there are few agencies more capable of defending personal freedoms than a benevolent, legitimate democratic government. It is important to realize, though, that freedoms are always, and necessarily, limited in some way — usually owing to the need to protect persons and property, or meet one of the other purposes of good governance. “Freedom” simply means “things we are allowed to do,” and never extends to every single thing we could possibly do.⁴

#6: PROVISION OF PUBLIC GOODS

There are some things that benefit society as a whole, and are not targeted to benefit any particular individual; they are considered to be implicitly, inherently good for the nation and community. These things are called “public goods,” and government often has the role to deliver at least some of them.

Roads are a good example. We pay taxes to build and maintain public roads across the nation. This is a public good because everyone uses roads, and some of our freedoms of movement depend in large part on having publicly-accessible highways to enable us to move from place to place without trespassing.

(LIBERAL VIEW) It is government’s role to identify and provision as many public goods as desired by the citizenry for the overall benefit of society. This is good for the nation because these public goods benefit everyone equally and do not rely on a profit motive for provisioning or maintenance, meaning that they can be applied in ways that are not immediately profitable but are nonetheless desirable.

Again, to take roads as an example, these can certainly be built by private interests — but toll roads are ruinously expensive to use, and most people and businesses would rather use a public road most of the time. Such is the case for many public goods; it’s not that private industry can’t provide them, but it is better in some way when government does. You’d never believe it from the rhetoric that lobbyists and Ayn Rand fanatics throw around, but this is quite often the case, particularly for large-scale infrastructure and utility projects.

#7: (LIBERAL VIEW) SOCIAL JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS

Democracies rest on reasonably fair and equal treatment of all citizens in business, personal, and public life. This is not in dispute by any political theorists, but they do tend to argue on the definition of “reasonable.” Some people define “reasonable” as “the right to vote.” I agree that’s a good minimum standard, but I go a little farther.

Fair and equal treatment is necessary simply because democracies are built on the assumption that all citizens’ needs should be addressed (or at least acknowledged) in order to tamp down on social unrest, and correspondingly increase citizens’ quality of life. A democracy that cannot do this is ultimately doomed to social and political upheaval; repressed people historically only put up with repression for just so long. Routine discrimination therefore cannot be countenanced by any state that aspires to fairness, democracy, and stability.

Similarly, fair and equal treatment is necessary to ensure that all citizens have relatively equal access to the levers of power (running for office, petitioning the government, etc.). Societies where this is not the case tend to have revolutions. And, the American Revolution aside, revolutions tend to be bad. You usually end up with thugs in power who are no better than, and often worse than, the people they replaced.

It is also extremely important from a modern economic perspective to ensure that all citizens have relatively equal opportunities for things like education, business opportunity, and political representation. This is because the modern capitalist economic system rests on a foundation of innovation. Innovation is responsible for economic growth. There’s simply no way around that statement. And innovation depends on educated, smart people having access to marketplaces and credit.

It is self-evident that humanity’s intelligence exists on a statistical distribution (if possibly a skewed one); this means that in any given population you’re going to have a certain number of geniuses, a certain number of smart people, a huge mass of persons of average intelligence, and a trailing number of less intelligent people.

That, in turn, means that the ability of any society to succeed economically rests in part on leveraging as many smart people as possible, which in turn naturally leads to the conclusion that all citizens should have an opportunity to succeed. Otherwise you just get very smart people who might be the innovators of tomorrow, but are stuck in subsistence or disadvantaged positions because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. This isn’t good for the economy or the nation.

Accordingly, it is the role of any government which values stability, the rights of its populace, and the economic success of the nation to ensure that at least minimum standards of social justice and fairness are met, and met reliably. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily hobble the nation, and court disaster and unrest to boot.

Conclusion: A “Legitimate” Government

These are the purposes of government that I would consider inherent to the operation of a modern, democratic state. I would consider any modern democracy to have failed in its obligations if it does not work towards these purposes.

Let me add to that that I firmly believe that democracies are the only form of government that can reliably integrate these purposes, because they are the only form of government which routinely and reliably involves the citizenry in national decisions. I would consider any democracy that does not tick these boxes to not be much of a democracy at all, but rather some form of oligarchy (government by a powerful few).

And let me finish by saying that I don’t expect you to agree with me on every point. That’s also one of the fun bits of a democracy — we get to argue about this stuff. But I do suggest that you think about it, argue about it, and draw your lines in the sand about what you think the purpose of government is. Because if you don’t, there are literally millions of people who will happily do so for you, and this is critical to your survival and prosperity as a member of a democratic nation.

¹This is not always a good thing. Centralization is a power play; make sure you’re ok with who has the power.

²Most early forms of government were highly extractive, meaning that the king and/or nobility ended up owning most of the wealth, and the country largely existed as their personal piggy bank/entertainment/army. This started to change around the time of the industrial revolution, the Enlightenment, and the development of modern democratic systems in the 1700s/early 1800s. Modern ideas of government are built on the theory/ideal that government exists to support and defend nations and citizens as a whole, not particular individuals or social groups. Some earlier governments had this ideal as well, but it wasn’t exactly the norm, and it wasn’t particularly well enforced.

³Even Communist countries respect property rights. They just operate on the rule that the government owns all or most of the property, which rather puts a damper on the whole concept.

⁴One other thing — never let anyone tell you that freedoms are “God-given.” That’s a rhetorical flourish that has no practical bearing on life. God has never once come down from on high to defend the freedoms of anyone. The freedoms you have are the ones you claim, seize, and defend.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store