If you were to ask a dozen people what the purpose of government is, you would undoubtedly get a dozen distinctly different answers. Despite ideology, however, all governments have similar basic purposes.
The Four Basic Purposes of Government
Government is established to serve four primary purposes: protecting citizens from external threats, establishing laws, providing for the general welfare, and maintaining order and security. How they fulfill these purposes depends on the specific type of government. For instance, laws are created and enforced to meet the needs of the citizens in a democracy while they are developed to meet the wants of the leadership in a dictatorship.
For Americans, the Preamble of the Constitution spells these goals out explicitly. It reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Establishment of Laws
The legitimate authority to enact and enforce laws is one primary purpose of government. As such, governments institute laws and punish those that break them.
As always, the way in which these laws are created and adhered to varies depending on the type of government in question.
With a dictatorship, the ruler creates the laws but is entirely immune to them. Meanwhile, in a democracy, laws are created by citizens and in a republic, they are made to be the citizens through their representatives.
The principle of rule of law is important to a democratic government as it ensures that citizens and the government both operate under the same laws to protect and limit them. Thus, nobody is above the law and it is applied equally in a democracy.
To ensure that this holds true in all instances, laws are recorded publicly, equally enforced and interpreted by an unbiased and independent body. In the United States, that body is the judicial branch of the government.
In the American democratic republic, all individuals possess the same rights under the law and the criminal justice system is charged with enforcing laws the same way for all members of the community. Those tasked with administering the law are included in that with both the governed and those who govern equally held to the same standard.
To that end, more than 12 members of the legislative body responsible for the creation of laws – the U.S. Congress – were charged with a serious crime in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Maintaining Order and Security
The power and responsibility to protect citizens from crimes of all types and to settle disputes between parties by regulating interactions also rest with the government. Governments are responsible for protecting their citizens from harm.
How this goal of providing security and order is accomplished takes different forms depending on the type of government. In a democracy where the focus is on ensuring the realization of citizens’ rights and safety is paramount, the dictatorial focus on maintaining the power of the regime seems unconscionable.
This step often goes hand in hand with the first purpose of government, at least in democracies. The laws established in a democratic government are designed to protect its citizens, maintain order and provide security to all.
The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution says, “insur[ing] domestic Tranquility.” This tranquility includes the creation of institutions like the criminal justice system. Their role is to enforce the laws of the land and protect citizens from threats to their physical, financial and psychological security. Additionally, the civil justice system allows citizens to settle disputes between themselves with an unbiased and fair mediator, the U.S. courts.
Protection from External Threats
The protection of citizens is not confined to within the borders of the government’s region of influence. Protecting citizens from external threats is another purpose of government and includes several factors.
The formation, implementation and utilization of military forces are one of these factors. As is the participation in international diplomatic actions and agreements that provide protection from threats from foreign entities.
This protection includes invisible attacks like cyber espionage and intellectual property theft as well as physical assaults like the terrorist attacks on the United States World Trade Center on September 11th in 2001.
To fulfill this purpose, governments have the ability to promote international security for their citizens through the declaration of war or by participating in diplomatic efforts. Signing treaties, sending ambassadors and establishing trade agreements all help to support and further the peacekeeping efforts of governments.
Providing for the General Welfare
The final purpose of government – although no less important than the others – is providing for the general welfare of its citizens. As with all other duties of government, how this purpose is interpreted and acted upon depends on the type of government in question.
A democratic government seeks to ensure the prosperity, happiness and health of its citizens and enacts a variety of government programs to do just that. A dictatorship or other fascist form of government generally seeks to provide just enough for their citizens to survive but not enough to give them any real power.
Even within democratic governments, the extent and nature of government programs vary greatly. The range of services provided to citizens depends largely on the values of that specific society.
Furthermore, there are few true democracies and how one provides for the general welfare of its citizens is often tempered by the other political ideology affecting that government. For instance, the United States is a democratic republic. Thus, their democratic ideology is tempered with the principles of a republic.
Services designed by governments to promote the general welfare of its citizens often include:
- Support services for the aged or poor
- Public education
- Health care service
- Access to clean water and air
- Emergency services
- Building and maintaining an efficient and safe infrastructure
Again, how these services are implemented depends largely on the values of the society and the government itself. In much of Europe, governance provides extensive services in what is known as social welfare states. Communist countries, however, provide only the bare minimum.
Wrapping It Up
Each person’s personal ideology influences what they see as the purpose of government. In much the same way, the form of a government takes influences how that government fulfills its purpose. Despite differing outlooks, all governments have four essential purposes: protecting citizens from external threats, establishing laws, providing for the general welfare, and maintaining order and security.