The Role of Government in a Society

Government is the means of governing a group or a community. It sets the rules for citizens to behave, protects them from others’ interference and often provides goods and services they cannot provide themselves. Governments vary in size, type and shape, but they all share some characteristics. They use laws, institutions and customs to manage a system of rule. Governments can be democratic, republican, monarchical or autocratic and are usually established by treaty or constitutional document.

One of the oldest and simplest justifications for government is protection: protecting people from violence, both from other citizens and from foreign foes. This was the central argument of Thomas Hobbes’ classic Leviathan, and it is on display around the world in fragile states and essentially ungoverned regions where even despotic regimes are preferred over the chaos and destruction of little or no government.

Another function of government is to provide public goods, such as education, police and fire departments, transportation and mail service, food, housing and health care for the poor, and national parks. Governments at the local, state and federal level make laws to establish these goods and services and raise money to pay for them by imposing taxes on individuals and businesses. Local governments use the funds to make improvements in their communities, while state and federal governments distribute funds throughout their regions or nations.

A third major function of government is to provide a framework for collective action, solving problems that cannot be solved by markets or individual efforts. One of the most prominent examples of this is regulating pollution from industrial sources, which is difficult to do through the legal system or private effort. Governments are expected to penalize polluters, even if the polluters might be able to afford to defend themselves in court.

Most importantly, government provides citizens a means to participate in their own governance. This includes ensuring that they have a say in who governs them and allowing them to express their opinions to those who do. Western democracies like the United States, Britain and France also protect their citizens’ freedom of speech and of the press.

Whether government is appropriate in each particular circumstance depends on a range of factors, including cultural and historical traditions, as well as the beliefs and values of its citizens. Nuanced arguments about specific policies are fine, but the debate over the role of government in a society must include broad arguments about which areas should be addressed by government and which should not. This is a central issue that political candidates should address with voters, not just in terms of their plans, but also by debating the rationale behind each point where they call for increased government intervention and each point where they oppose it.