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Old Thursday, January 08, 2009
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What is government? What are its distinguishing characteristics? What are some major functions of government?

1. Government--A Definition

A government is the agent, or instrument, of the political society of which the government is a part. For example, the United States national government is the agent of American society as a whole--the instrument of the national political community we call the United States of America.

A political society's agent, or government, consists of public institutions--institutions which have the authority to make and enforce decisions which are binding on the whole society and all of its members. In American society, the U.S. national, or central, government consists of the public institutions possessing authority to make and carry out decisions which are binding on all individuals dwelling within the territorial borders of the U.S.A. and on the separate governments of the fifty states comprising the American federal union. In South Carolina, as is the case in every member-state of the federal union, there exists an additional set of public institutions--the institutions making up the state government and having the authority to make and enforce decisions binding on all inhabitants of the state, the state being a subnational, regional community (i.e., a subsociety) within the overall American national society.

2. Public Institutions--Distinguishing Characteristics:

Public institutions, the institutions comprising the government of a political society, differ from the other institutions within the society. That is, the public, or governmental, institutions differ from the private institutions--institutions such as private business corporations, labor unions, private schools, religious organizations (except in societies characterized by the union of state and religion), and voluntary clubs and associations. Governmental, or public, institutions differ from private institutions in six ways: (1) The jurisdiction of a government extends to all members of the society, or community, of which it is the agent. (2) The government controls the use of physical force and coercion within the political society. (3) the government, if stable, is characterized by political legitimacy. (4) The decisions of the government are authoritative; the decisions (a) are vested with the authority of the society for and in the name of which they are made and carried out and (b) are binding on all members of the society. (6) Every decision or action of the government is the legitimate concern of the general public.

3. Universality of the Government's Reach within Society:

A government, within the borders of its own society, is universal in its reach. That is, the jurisdiction, or authority, of the government extends to all persons and groups within the society. The authority of a private institution existing and operating in the U.S.A., for example, does not extend to all members of American society. A private institution--let's say the Catholic Church, the Masons, General Motors Corporation, the United Mine Workers of America, Duke University, Phi Beta Kappa, the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Organization of Women, the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts, or a family--has jurisdiction only over its own members or employees. The private institution's policies, by-laws, rules, or regulations govern its own members or employees; they do not apply generally throughout the entire political society. The only set of institutions in American society with jurisdiction extending to all members of the national society is the U.S. national government. And in a given American state, aside from the set of institutions comprising the national government, the only set of institutions that is universal in its reach within the particular state subsociety is the state government.

4. The Government's Control of the Use of Physical Force and Coercion:

The government reserves to itself a monopoly of control over employment of armed force and violence by the society and its members. The government has the legal right to utilize instruments of physical force and coercion, when deemed necessary, to preserve or restore domestic order or to compel obedience to the official decisions of government. In addition, it has ultimate authority to control and regulate the possession and use of such instruments by private citizens and groups. The government possesses the authority to decide who does and who does not legally go around armed within society. It has the power to decide if--and if so, under what conditions--private citizens shall be allowed to use armed force and violence.

5. The Government and Political Legitimacy:

A stable government in a stable society is characterized by political legitimacy; that is, the government possesses legitimate political authority. The people making up the political believe that the government has the moral as well as the legal right to exercise political power over all subordinate parts of the society. The government is widely perceived by the citizenry to have the legitimate right to make and carry out decisions which apply to and are binding on all members of the society. Within the political society, there is the feeling, widespread and strongly held, that (1) the government itself is legitimate, (2) the officeholders in the government obtained their positions by legitimate means, (3) these government officeholders possess legitimate authority to make binding decisions, and (4) the decisions themselves are legitimate and ought to be obeyed. Political legitimacy reflects the underlying consensus within society--the widespread agreement on matters of fundamental importance to the society--which is indispensable to the longterm existence and operation of the government, including its ability to make and enforce binding decisions for the entire society.

6. Authoritative Decisionmaking and Action by the Government:

The decisions made and carried out by governmental offices and institutions are authoritative. The official decisions made and implemented by government for and in the name of the entire society are authoritative decisions. Governmental decisions are authoritative because they (1) are vested with the authority of the overall society for which they are made and enforced, (2) are binding on all members of the society, and (3) are accepted as binding by the vast majority of the society's members.

Compliance with the government's decisions is not voluntary; compliance is mandatory, or compulsory. The decisions of the government are not requests or recommendations; they are authoritative commands that must be obeyed. Standing behind these decisions are the instruments of physical force and coercion--the police, the military forces, the courts, and the prisons. The government, in other words, possesses the legitimate right to resort to--or threaten to resort to--armed force and violence, if necessary, to obtain citizens' obedience to its authoritative, binding decisions. One political observer has referred to the government as the "shotgun behind the door."

Also standing behind the decisions of government and making them authoritative are widespread and strongly-held feelings that the decisions not only have to be obeyed in order to avoid punishment for disobedience but also should be obeyed because it is the moral as well as legal duty of citizens to comply with the laws of the political community. In other words, governmental decisions bear the force of legitimacy; they are considered to be legitimate by all or most members of the society. Because the decisions are widely accepted as legitimate, they bear a very high probability of compliance. It is highly probable that the decisions will be obeyed, with few, if any, members of the society challenging the right of the government to make the decisions or its capacity and will to effectively enforce them.

7. The Government's Authoritative Allocation of Resources and Values:

The official decisions and actions of government help allocate society's relatively scarce resources. When the government makes and implements decisions that are binding on all members of the society, it authoritatively allocates resources and values for the society. That is, the decisions and actions of government have the effect of authoritatively distributing the benefits and costs of living in politically organized society.

The allocations made by government differ from those made by the institutions comprising the private sector of the economy. The private economic sector engages in a market allocation of resources and values, distributing society's resources and values--benefits and costs--by means of the market mechanism. In the market, millions of individuals, groups, and firms receive society's benefits, advantages, and rewards in accordance with their ability and willingness to pay for them or provide satisfactory products and services in voluntary exchange.

In contrast, the government engages in a command, or authoritative, allocation of resources and values. The government accomplishes the allocation by making and enforcing official decisions which are binding on all members of the society. The government allocates resources and values through exercise of its legitimate authority to (1) lay and collect taxes, (2) borrow money on the credit of the general public, (3) appropriate and dispense funds from the public treasury, (4) regulate and restrict human behavior, and (5) generally, make and enforce laws and other government rules and regulations. In the exercise of this authority, the government authoritatively decides which individuals, groups, and firms within the society will receive more of the rewards, benefits,and advantages and which will bear more of the costs and burdens.

In short, government allocates benefits and costs by means of public policy, while the private economy accomplishes the allocation through the voluntary, private decisions and actions of millions of individuals, groups, and firms in the marketplace.

In a predominantly capitalistic society, such as the U.S.A., the private economic sector allocates, by far, the greater proportion of society's resources and values. Government, however, allocates some very important resources and values. The benefits and the burdens--the rewards and deprivations--authoritatively distributed by government through decisions and actions on public policy affect the interests of many individuals, groups, and firms within society. In adopting and implementing income-tax policy, for example, the national government determines whether private savers and investors will be rewarded or penalized, encouraging or discouraging savings and investment and thereby very impor- tantly affecting the nation's rates of capital formation and real economic growth (i.e., economic growth with low inflation), which in turn decisively affect the economic well-being of virtually the entire American population. To give another example, national, state, and local funding of the public schools, colleges, and universities as well as public policies governing such matters as free choice of schools, home schooling, the status of charter schools, school vouchers, and tax treatment of enrollment in private educational institu- tions significantly affect the ability of middle-income persons, the bulk of the American population, to obtain good educations for their sons and daughters. To mention still another example, public policies affecting Medicare, Social Security, public and private employee retirement programs, and tax-sheltered annuities impact significantly on the interests of a segment of American society that is steadily growing in numbers and political importance--workers who have retired and those who are nearing retirement.

8. Governmental Activity and Public Concern:

The activities and functions of the government are the legitimate concern of the entire adult population comprising the political society. Anything the government does or fails to do is the business of the general public. Authoritative decisionmaking and action by the government entails the expenditure of money from the public treasury. Every government policy adopted and carried out, every government program authorized, funded and implemented, involves spending tax money--money which the government demands and extracts from the members of the political society. Since the costs of government are borne by the taxpaying members of the community, the decisions and actions of the government, including its internal operations, are the business of the citizenry at large.

This cannot be accurately said of any private, non-governmental organization or institution operating within American society. The U.S.A., or any other political society that is not totalitarian, recognizes and permits the existence within its boundaries of a large private sphere of human endeavor, a substantial and significant dimension of human life that is not the business of the general public. In the U.S.A., the component institutions of the large private economic sector make and carry out many decisions that are of no concern to the general public. It is true that particular decisions and actions of private business corporations may have--and, on numerous occasions, have had--spinoff effects which adversely affect the safety and well-being of the whole society or are detrimental to the legal rights of other business firms or to the rights of individual citizens. Whenever such conditions obtain, the relevant decisions and actions of the private companies are the business of the general public and the companies' activities are subject to government regulation and control. At the same time, however, the corporations remain essentially private in nature and purpose, with their internal operations being largely their own private business, not the general concern of the political community at large.
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Major Functions of Modern Government:

Major functions of modern government include (1) foreign diplomacy, (2) military defense, (3) maintenance of domestic order, (4) administration of justice, (5) protection of civil liberties, (6) provision for and regulation of the conduct of periodic elections, (7) provision for public goods and services, (8) promotion of economic growth and development, (9) operation of social- insurance programs to prevent future poverty, and (10) operation of social-welfare programs to alleviate existing poverty.

a. Foreign Diplomacy. Handling foreign diplomacy is one of the most important functions performed by the national, or central, government of a sovereign state--i.e., the central government of a complrtely independent political society that maintains formal diplomatic relations with a significant number of other sovereign states in the world, sovereign states whose central governments officially recognize the independence, or sovereignty, of the particular political society and are willing to maintain diplomatic relations with its estab- lished, existing central government. Foreign diplomacy is the process of a sovereign state conducting formally peaceful relations with another sovereign state--i.e., all formal rela- tionships and interactions short of war. In handling foreign diplomacy, the central govern- ments of sovereign states may apply pressure and issue warnings and veiled--and not so veiled--threats to one another as well as negotiate, bargain, compromise, and conclude treaties and alliances with each other. Foreign diplomacy is the process through a sover- eign state, interacting with other sovereign states in the international arena, seeks to protect and further its own national interests by all means other than waging a hot war.

The U.S. national government, functioning as the sole representative of the United States of America in its dealings and relations with other sovereign states, carries on foreign diplomacy through the Presidency, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. embassies and other American diplomatic missions maintained in foreign capitals.

Dating from ancient times, foreign diplomacy is one of the oldest functions of government. While the use of diplomatic representatives to communicate with foreign governments is as old as the very first political societies to emerge among members of the human species, it was not until the 1400s A.D. that the first permanent diplomatic missions abroad were established. The Italian states of the fifteenth century introduced the practice of maintaining embassies in each others capitals, and from Italy, the practice quickly spread to the other European states.

b. Military Defense. A political society's national, or central, government is responsible for preserving the security of that society from foreign aggression. The government maintains armed forces and, when necessary, utilizes them to protect the territory and people it governs from attack and invasion by foreign powers.

Military defense is one of the oldest and most important functions of government.

In the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, military defense is referred to as the "common defense." One of the great purposes for which the U.S. Constitution was ordained and established was to "provide for the common defense" of American society.

b. Domestic Order. A government must control the people it seeks to govern and protect. The government must maintain internal peace--i.e., peace among individuals and groups within the society. In the Preamble to the United States Constitution, internal peace, or domestic order, is referred to as "domestic tranquillity." Ensuring domestic tranquillity was another great purpose for which the Constitution was ordained and established.

In a constitutional democracy, such as Britain, Canada or the U.S.A., ensuring domestic order means maintaining law and order--establishing and enforcing the "rule of law" to insure preservation and protection, under orderly conditions, of the citizen's right to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. It is the duty of the government, through suppression of domestic disorders and faithful and effective enforcement of the laws of the political community, to protect persons from illegitimate physical violence, safequard property from vandalism, theft and fraud, and otherwise maintain the conditions that enable the citizen to safely travel within the society's territorial borders, carry on legitimate business enterprises, and otherwise legally and peacefully conduct his personal and private affairs, without having to fear bodily harm or loss of property through the criminal and subversive activities of others.

"Law and order" is sometimes referred to as "ordered liberty and "liberty under law," the two latter expressions strongly implying that, without domestic order, there can be no liberty, that the government's success in suppressing domestic disorder and enforcing the law is essential to the citizen's enjoyment of the right to life, liberty, and property.

Domestic order, like foreign diplomacy and military defense, is one of the oldest and most important functions of government.

c. Administration of Justice. To enforce the "rule of law," a government must operate a system of laws and courts that (1) makes all adult citizens equal under the law and (2) provides them equal opportunities to obtain just settlement of their civil disputes and receive fair treatment if suspected or accused of engaging in criminal activity. In other words, the government must operate a system of administering justice, a system which gives to every person what is his due.

According to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, one of the great purposes of the Constitution was to "establish justice"--i.e., establish a system of administering justice under national law.

d. Protection of Civil Liberties. A most important function of government in a constitutional democratic society is to ptotect civil liberties--i.e., preserve and safeguard the basic rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution to the individual members of the society. In American society, the basic, constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties which government must preserve and protect include (1) the right to free exercise of religion, (2) freedom of speech and press, (3) the right to hold peaceful meetings and to organize, or associate, for peaceful purposes, (4) the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, (5) the right to equal protection of the laws, (6) immunity from deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, (7) the right to just compensation for private property taken for a public purpose, (8) immunity from bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, (9) the right to a writ of habeas corpus, if taken into custody, (10) security of person and property from unreasonable searches and seizures, (11) immunity from forced self-incrimination in criminal investigations and prosecutions, (12) immunity from double jeopardy in criminal prosecutions, (13) the right of the accused, in any criminal prosecution, to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted with witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense, and (14) immunity from excessive bail, from excessive fines, and from cruel and unusual punishments.

e. Provision for and Regulation of the Conduct of Elections. In a constitutional democratic society, a vitally important constitutional duty of government is to (1) provide for free and meaningful elections, held at frequent intervals to fill major public-policy decisionmaking offices in the government, and (2) regulate the conduct of these elections so as to ensure that they are carried on fairly, honestly, and peacefully.

In the U.S.A., performance of the duty of providing for and regulating the conduct of elections is primarily the responsibility of the fifty states. The national government, however, also has some important powers and responsibilities in connection with this particular governmental function.

f. Provision for Public Goods and Services. Public goods and services are goods and services provided by government. They are goods and services provided by public institutions, rather than by private institutions.

Governments can and do tax citizens to raise money to spend on goods and services which will or are expected to benefit all or virtually all citizens but which, according to widespread perceptions within the society, are not likely to be supplied through voluntary, market- induced activities of private individuals, groups, and firms. The market mechanism and profit motive in the private sector of the economy, according to widespread perceptions, cannot be relied upon to satisfactorily provide these goods and services. Governmental decisionmaking and action are needed.

Assertion of the need for governmental decisionmaking and action to insure satisfactory provision of the goods and services is, of course, an arguable proposition. Persons of Libertarian, or laissez-faire, persuation disagree with this proposition. Libertarians, also known as "Manchester Liberals," believe the proper and legitimate functions of government are limited to foreign diplomacy, military defense, maintaining domestic order, administration of justice, protection of civil liberties, providing for and regulating the conduct of elections, and keeping the records incidental to performance of these functions. Virtually all other human activities, including provision of goods and services widely desired by individuals and groups within society, should be left to the private economic sector and its market mechanism.

Examples of public goods and services provided by national, state, and local governments in the U.S.A. include (1) public parks, (2) public education (public schools, colleges, and universities), (3) dams and canals, (4) airports, (5) streets and highways, (6) rapid mass transit systems, (7) post offices and mail delivery, (8) sewers and waste disposal plants, (9) water purification and distribution systems, (10) garbage collection and disposal, (11) electrical power, and (12) mental and general hospitals.

Provision of public goods and services is one of the older functions of government.

g. Promotion of Economic Growth and Development. The central government of a modern society seeks to facilitate and foster the growth and development of the nation's overall economy. The government actively pursues public policies--especially in the areas of taxation, foreign trade, and regulation of and subsidies for domestic economic activities-- designed to promote increased capital formation and industrial production, higher levels of commercial activity within the society, a more favorable balance of trade with foreign nations, and hence low levels of unemployment and widespread economic prosperity among the members of its own society.

The objectives the government expects to achieve through promotion of economic growth and development include (1) increasing the industrial and military strength of the society, (2) ensuring the society's unity and stability and the government's legitimacy, (3) enhancing the political support enjoyed by the incumbent officeholders in the government--political support provided by individuals and groups benefiting from the high employment levels and widespread economic prosperity, and (4) securing a broad tax base that will enable the government to fund its activities and programs. As regards the fourth objective, high levels of employment (coupled with low inflation) and widespread economic prosperity, sustained over a long period of time, result in large amounts of income being earned by the citizens-- large amounts of income which is subject to taxation. This brings large amounts of revenue into the public treasury on a regular and continuing basis, thus enabling the government to fund its activities and programs.

Governmental promotion of economic growth and development is by no means a new function of government. It has been around for approximately 500 years. This governmental function, in the form of mercantilism, was very much in evidence during the 1500s. In sixteenth-century Europe, the function was performed by the central governments of the newly emerging national political societies--Spain, Portugal, France, and England.

h. Social Insurance. In order to ensure the income security of citizens and thereby prevent future poverty, contemporary governments in relatively wealthy societies provide for social insurance--governmented-mandated insurance programs designed to protect the individual members of society from economic misfortune widely perceived to be due to circumstances beyond the control of the individuals, circumstances such as old age, physical disability, poor health, and temporary unemployment.

The benefits distributed under a social-insurance program are paid for by the program's participants; the benefits are not funded out of general-tax revenues. The benefits are paid out of the program's trust fund, to which the beneficiaries have made compulsory contribu- tions. Each participant in the program is required to contribute to his own protection against future impoverishment.

Examples of government programs in the U.S.A. which, at least in theory, operate as social-insurance programs include (1) Social Security (old-age and survivors' insurance), (2) Railroad Retirement, (3) disability insurance, (4) unemployment insurance, and (5) national health insurance (Medicare).

Social insurance is one of the more recent functions of government. In the U.S.A., social security, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance are nearly 65 years old. The programs began under the Social Security Act, enacted by Congress in 1935, and were expanded by subsequent congressional legislation.

In Europe, social insurance was introduced earlier than it was in the U.S.A. In 1884, the government of Germany set up a comprehensive system of social insurance. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the government of every political society on the European mainland had established and was operating some types of social-insurance programs. In Great Britain, unemployment and sickness insurance, established under the National Insurance Act of 1911, was expanded by subsequent parliamentary legislation, old-age and survivors' insurance being added in 1925 and subsequently expanded. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, social security, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance were begun about the same time as they were in the U.S.A.

In the U.S.A., national health insurance, in the form of Medicare, is nearly 35 years old, having been established under 1965 amendments to the Social Security Act of 1935. National health insurance in other English-speaking societies and in the West European countries began earlier and is universal in coverage.

Medicare, the American version of national health insurance, is not universal in coverage; its coverage is limited to particular categories of persons specified by law. Under Medi- care, acute-care coverage (hospital care, skilled nursing facility care, hospice care, and some aspects of home health care) is provided for (1) Social Security and Railroad Retirement beneficiaries, on reaching the age of 65 years, (2) some disabled persons under 65 years of age (those entitled to receive Social Security and Railroad Retirement disability benefits for a period of 24 months), and (3) persons suffering from end-stage renal disease (permanent kidney failure treated with dialysis or a transplant).

i. Social Welfare. Social-welfare policy--also known as "public assistance," "public aid," and "public welfare"--consists of government programs to provide assistance to the poor. These programs are designed to alleviate existing poverty, providing aid to particular categories of persons who are unable to adequately support themselves, due to circum- stances widely perceived within the society to be beyond the control of the indigent persons. The categories of persons eligible for public assistance generally include (1) women with dependent children in families where the father is absent or unemployed and (2) persons who, though aged, blind or disabled, are not covered by social-insurance programs and are therefore ineligible for benefits under them.

The money to pay for social-welfare programs does not come out of trust funds to which the beneficiaries have made contributions, as is the case with social-insurance programs. The benefits distributed under social-welfare programs are financed with funds coming directly from the general public treasury. In other words, social-welfare programs are paid for by the taxpayers in general.

In the U.S.A., social-welfare programs funded, at least in part, by the national government include (1) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), (2) Food Stamps, (3) Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and (4) Medicaid.

Social welfare, as a function of national government, is relatively new. In the U.S.A., the practice of establishing and operating nationally mandated and funded public-aid programs originated during the 1930s. As a consequence of the Great Depression of the 1930s, public assistance became a major responsibility of the U.S. national government, beginning with such New Deal measures as Old Age Assistance and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which were enacted by Congress in 1935, as parts of the Social Security Act.

While social welfare is a relatively new function of national governments, welfare, as a function of local governments, is quite old. Locally funded and administered public assistance in the English-speaking world dates back to the sixteenth century.

In England, the policy of levying local taxes to provide aid to the poor began in London in 1547 and, over the next 50 years, spread to many other towns in the Kingdom. Under the Poor Laws enacted by Parliament in 1563 and 1572 respectively, the principle of local taxation for public aid was incorporated into national law and the method of collection of the "poor-relief rate" by the towns was made uniform throughout the Kingdom. The Poor Law of 1597 was a codifying measure. And the Poor Law of 1601 authorized each town to levy a poor-relief rate on its propertyowners. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was operating in England a social-welfare system which was mandated by Parliament and was based on the principle that it was the legal responsibility of every town to care for any of its impoverished inhabitants who could not be cared for by their respective families.

10. Government--A Summary.

A government, comprised of public institutions and serving as the instrument of its overall political society, differs from all other institutions within the society. Firstly, the government is universal in its reach within the society, its authority extending to all members of the society. Secondly, the government claims a monopoly of control over the use of armed force and violence by the society and its members. Thirdly, if the government and society are stable, governmental decisions and actions bear the force of political legitimacy, the decisions and actions being widely recognized within the society as morally and legally binding on all of its members. Fourthly, the decisions of government are authoritative; i.e., they (a) are made and carried out for and in the name of the entire society, (b) are vested with the authority of the society, and (c) are binding on all members of the society. Fifthly, the government, in making and enforcing its decisions, authoritatively allocates the benefits and costs of living in the society. Sixthly, all governmental decisions and actions involve the spending of tax money and are therefore the business of the general public.

Among the major functions of modern government are foreign diplomacy, military defense, maintenance of domestic tranquillity, administration of justice, provision of public goods and services, promotion of economic growth and development, and the operation of social-insurance and social-welfare programs. In constitutional democratic societies, the major functions of government also include protection of civil liberties and making provision for and regulating the conduct of elections.
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