Learn all about the main purposes of government in just a few minutes! Scot Schraufnagel, chair and professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, explains how governments establish laws, maintain order and provide security, protect citizens from external threats, and promote the general welfare.
All governments have the purposes of establishing laws, providing order and security, protecting their people from external threats, and providing for the general welfare.
Governments, despite ideological differences, tend to have similar purposes. Depending on the type of government, the ways a government meets those purposes can vary. For example, in a democracy, the creation and enforcement of laws is closely tied to the wants and needs of citizens. In a dictatorship, laws may be administered in a method that benefits the leader or the central government more than those being governed.
In general, there are four main purposes of government: to establish laws, maintain order and provide security, protect citizens from external threats, and promote the general welfare by providing public services. The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution spells out these specific goals clearly:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.
Purposes of Government
||Maintain Order and Security
||Protect from External Threats
||Provide for the General Welfare
|Government has the legitimate authority to institute laws that all people must follow; government also has the authority to punish those who break the law.
||Government has police power that is used to protect people from crime and to regulate interactions in order to prevent or settle disputes between parties.
||Government uses military, diplomatic actions, and participation in international agreements to protect the people from threats originating from outside the state's borders.
||Government attempts to ensure the health, happiness, and prosperity of citizens through a variety of government programs.
While all governments enact laws, a democracy embraces the principle of the rule of law, which ensures that both the government and the people operate under the same set of laws, which both protect and limit them. By this principle, no person in the state is above the law.
Though all governments enact laws, the creation of and adherence to those laws varies. In a monarchy or dictatorship, laws are promulgated by the ruler. In a democracy, laws are made by the people or their representatives. Central to a democratic government is the principle of the rule of law, the idea that all people and institutions within a state are subject to the same laws. These laws must be publicly recorded, enforced equally across the population, and interpreted by an independent and unbiased body such as a judicial branch.
According to the rule of law, no one is above the law. The law is applied equally to everyone. This means, first, that all members of society are subject to the same laws. In addition, the criminal justice system is charged with enforcing the laws in the same way for all members of society, and all individuals possess the same rights under the law. The equal application includes those who are tasked with administering the law. Both the governed and those who govern are equally protected and accountable for their actions. For example, in the first two decades of the 21st century, more than a dozen members of the U.S. Congress were indicted, or charged with a serious crime.
A government is responsible for protecting its people from harm, though the goal of providing order and security can take different forms in a dictatorship, where the focus is more on maintaining the regime, and in a democracy, where the focus is on ensuring safety and citizens' rights.
All governments work to establish order and security, but the underlying goal of that purpose can vary. In a dictatorship, the purpose of establishing order is in part to maintain the stability and security of the regime. Through the establishment and recognition of the rule of law, a democratic government is able to maintain order and provide security within the state. The Preamble to the Constitution calls this "insur[ing] domestic Tranquility." This "tranquility" includes providing institutions such as the criminal justice system, which has the role of protecting citizens from everything from physical harm to destruction or theft of personal property. The government also institutes the civil justice system as a mechanism citizens can use to settle disputes, another key component in maintaining order and security. A democratic government also provides protection against more intangible crimes, such as the violation of individuals' civil rights. In the United States, these rights, such as freedom of speech and the press, as well as individual liberties, are constitutionally protected by the Bill of Rights
. On the federal level, actual protection is provided through the Department of Justice.
Governments are responsible for preventing attacks on their people from persons or groups outside its borders.
The protection provided by the government is not confined to maintaining security within its borders. The state also provides security from external threats. This includes physical attacks, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and invisible attacks, such as cyber espionage. The government has the authority to raise and maintain a military for defense purposes and the power to declare war. It can also promote international security by participating in diplomatic efforts, signing treaties and other international agreements, and sending ambassadors to other countries to represent the country and its interests.
Governments provide a variety of services to promote the general welfare of their people, though the nature and extent of these programs varies greatly depending on the values of the society.
Finally, governments provide for the "general welfare" of their people. In this sense of the word, welfare means a state of happiness and well-being within a society. Governments provide a range of services to achieve this broad purpose, from public education, financial support to the poor and aged, and health care to building and maintaining a safe and efficient infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, and providing access to clean air and water. While all governments share this broad purpose, they act to implement this goal to different degrees, depending on the values of society. Social welfare states, such as those found in much of Europe, provide extensive government services, including free public education, income support, and government-supplied health care. In the United States, with its strong emphasis on individualism, liberty, and free markets, the government plays a less active role. Though localities provide free public school education, individuals who wish to pursue postsecondary education must fund their own schooling. In addition, while the government has programs to ensure health care for the poor, disabled, and elderly, most Americans obtain health insurance from employers or on their own.