United States Government: Why form a government?

An image of a poster that reads "This is America, where you vote as you please. Where the privileges of democracy belong to all people equally...where your government is your servant, not your master. This is your America. Keep it free!"

The right to vote is an important feature of the nation’s system of government; and, over the years, many people have fought and sacrificed to obtain or maintain this right. Why do people often ignore this means of civic engagement? (Credit: modification of work–National Archives and Records Administration)

Learning Objectives

  • Define and examine various forms of government.
  • Consider the level of order/control exerted over citizens by various forms of government.
  • Comprehend basic functions of government.

The United States of America have relied on citizen participation to govern at the local, state, and national level as a representative republic. The right to participate in government is an important pillar of this republic. The people have known and valued that right enough to fight for and then defend it over nearly two and a half centuries. Active civic participation is at once foundational to a free society, yet taken for granted by too many.

Chart listing rights of citizenship alongside responsibilities of citizenship.

The founders of the United States were originally focused on freedom from the tyranny of a remote and imperious monarchy. While forming a new independent government, they realized an opportunity to draw on the wisdom of revered political philosophers and centuries of experience with European states and governance. Government form, structure and process to serve the current and future interests of the people resulted. Perhaps most importantly, the resulting representative republic–centered on civic participation and control of government through the consent of the governed–is able to meet the people’s changing needs and interests over time.

Consider the issue of participation. At the founding, only free white males participated. In fact, some states further restricted participation by requiring ownership of property. Over time, these voting restrictions gradually gave way to full political equality of participation for all citizens. Only a government structured for ultimate control by the people, would be able to evolve the very definition of the people governing themselves. The definition of the people has changed over time. The struggle, to include more groups of people able to participate on equal footing, has been long and difficult. The fact that each disenfranchised group continued the struggle is evidence of the value placed on our representative republic and the opportunities equal participation affords.

The World War II era poster shown above depicts voting as an important part of the fight to keep the United States free. Voting is both a right worth protecting and a tool for engagement, which ensures the government serves the people rather than the reverse.

Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that “political bands” of government connect citizens of a nation and that governments are formed for the purpose of securing citizens’ rights of “[…] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1]He states that people agree to give power and authority to a government and to abide by agreed upon rules in order to achieve these objectives of protecting rights. While people hope the government will provide the proper balance between protecting their liberties, providing for their personal security and safety, and promoting opportunities to achieve personal happiness, no government is perfect. The balance between governmental purposes are constantly debated and discussed.  Debate is ongoing over what government should do to assist citizens in pursuing “happiness” while at the same time treating citizens equally in such pursuits.[2] Government sometimes regulates what we eat, where we go to school, what kind of education we receive, how our tax money is spent, and what we do in our free time. Americans are often unaware of the extent of government intervention in their lives.

What is government and why would we even want one?

Government is how a society organizes itself to allocate and exercise authority in order to accomplish purposes, goals and functions. These government functions typically include defense, education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation and trade for their citizens. Countries provide such benefits via different governmental forms and structures. The form and structure of governmental organization a country chooses should not be confused with politics. Politics is a competitive struggle for gaining and exercising control over the governmental processes or organizational structures that set or carry out the goals, purposes, or functions of the country.

John Locke, a 17th century political philosopher, posited (put forward as an argument) that all people have natural and unalienable (inseparable) rights to life, liberty, and property–people have natural rights of self-determination (control of their own life and property). Does it then follow that all social contracts or governments should involve individual consent from the people? In the eighteenth century this political thought developed into the idea that people should govern themselves through elected representatives; and, only representatives chosen by the people should make laws and institute control over citizens’ lives.

Why would we want any other individual or group to have any type of control over our lives or property?  Individuals would not need to band together for order or control if everyone respected each other’s lives, liberty and property 100% of the time.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with some individuals who seek to take away others’ lives, curtail others’ liberty, or deprive others of property; therefore, governments are established to protect against such usurpations (taking something by force).  The individuals organizing governmental control and imposing order for the new United States of America clearly stated the goals of good government in the Preamble to the contract for this new constitutional republic (their choice of governmental form).  They sought balance in government between liberty and order.

Consider the Original

Federalist No. 51

The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments; From the New York Packet; Friday, February 8, 1788.

Author: James Madison

[…] “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” […][3]

While most governments want to establish order and control, not all seek to protect liberty or property. Throughout history, the most common form of government–monarchy (one person or one family in control; power concentrated at the top)–saw order and control as the highest priority. Several hundred years before the U. S. Constitution was written and before John Locke wrote about people governing themselves through representatives, Thomas Hobbes wrote a political thesis titled Leviathan. He argues in Leviathan that a strong ruler is necessary to prevent a constant state of war.[4] Imagine there is no government, no police, no court, no rules. Hobbes concludes such a situation would make life “[…] poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”[5] He believed a strong ruler would keep people physically safe from attack. While Hobbes argued in his time for absolute monarchy, similar arguments for an extremely powerful ruler or dictator have been made in more recent times under a form of government known as authoritarianism.

Consider the Original

Excerpt from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Out Of Civil States,

“[…] it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man… the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary […].”

The Incommodites Of Such A War

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man… wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them… In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently… no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short […]”[6]

Although the power of some monarchs is limited by law, and such kings and queens often rule along with an elected legislature, this is not always the case. Kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have absolute monarchs with unrestricted powers. Also, many cases of very strong authoritarian governments still exist–with virtually dictatorial leaders where citizens have very limited opportunity to participate in governmental decisions.[7]

link to learning

The CIA website provides information about the types of government across the world.

 

Another nondemocratic form of government is oligarchy (power concentrated in a handful of elite members of society). This identifiable, permanent elite group of rulers frequently share characteristics of wealth, social status, military might, business, or political connections. In Cuba and China, only members of the Communist Party are allowed to vote or hold public office, and the party’s most influential members make all government decisions. Some nondemocratic societies are totalitarian in nature, generally authoritarian and tyrannical. Under totalitarianism, the government controls all aspects of citizens’ lives. Citizens’ rights are limited and government does not allow political criticism or opposition. North Korea is an example of a totalitarian government.

Arrow chart showing anarchy at 0% control to totalitarianism at 100% control.
link to learning

The Freedom House Annual Survey of political rights and civil liberties shares information on the political form of government of some 154 countries ranking countries as “Free,” “Partially Free,” and “Not Free.” Check it out at https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world.

In a republic (or what is commonly described as a representative democracy), citizens do not govern directly. They elect representatives to make decisions and pass laws in the best interests of the people. U.S. citizens vote for members of Congress, the president and vice president, members of state legislatures, governors, mayors, and members of town councils and school boards to act on their behalf. Most representative governments favor majority rule: the opinions of the majority of the people have more influence with government than those of the minority. If the number of elected representatives who favor a proposed law is greater than those who oppose it, the law will be enacted. However, in representative governments like the United States, minority rights are protected–people cannot be deprived of certain rights even if an overwhelming number of people think that they should be deprived. For example, even though the number of Americans who believe in the authority of a Higher Power far outweigh the number who do not, the minority is still protected and no imposition of particular religious belief or practice is forced on this minority group. Because decisions are mainly made through majority rule, making your opinions known and voting (for individuals who make decisions affecting all citizens) are influential forms of civic engagement in a republic.

Chart of governmental forms including totalitarianism, authoritarianism, monarchy, oligarchy, republic, direct democracy, and anarchy.

In a direct democracy, unlike a republic or representative democracy, people participate directly in government decisions. In ancient Athens, the most famous example of a direct democracy, all male citizens were allowed to attend meetings of the Assembly. Here they debated and voted for or against all proposed laws. Americans vote for people to represent them and make laws on their behalf.  They may sometimes vote directly on issues. For example, a referendum or proposed law may be placed on the ballot for citizens to vote on directly, taking the matter out of the hands of the state legislature. At New England town meetings, all residents are allowed to debate decisions affecting the town. Such occasions provide additional opportunities for civic engagement. Direct control is often more effective at local levels of government, becoming unmanageable as populations increase. Accordingly, there are no direct democracy referenda at the national level.

An image of a large group of people sitting in chairs inside of a large room.

Residents of Boxborough, Massachusetts, gather in a local hotel to discuss issues affecting their town. New England town meetings provide an opportunity for people to experience direct democracy. This tradition has lasted for hundreds of years. (Credit: modification of work by Liz West)

Consider the Original

“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”

Thomas Paine[8]

The framers of government in the new United States of America understood the dangers of anarchy (absence of government order), the problems of monarchy (the oppression of a distant and disengaged monarch) and oligarchy, the repression of tyranny, and the impracticality of direct democracy.  The new country was already too large and diverse for direct democracy.  A representative republic was their choice–citizen control via elected representatives.  They also had a clear understanding of the functions they wished the republic’s representatives to implement on behalf of citizens.

Basic Purposes, Goals, and Functions of Government

Consider the Original

The preamble to the Constitution clearly outlines the basic purposes of government expected to be achieved with the Constitution stating,

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.[9]

What are these six (6) purposes or goals of the United States’ government?

  1. (form a union) unify to maintain order and liberty; strengthen and provide enough power to the government to carry out listed goals
  2. (establish justice) formulate rules to establish order; a fair and impartial justice system to ensure equality before the law
  3. (domestic tranquility) make sure the new rules and punishments provide an environment of law and order to preserve physical security for citizens and their property 
  4. (common defense) make sure the union protects its citizens from foreign invasion & threats–military, political, and economic–through creation of a national military force
  5. (general welfare) promote social, political, and economic prosperity for the entire nation
  6. (secure liberty) maintain individual liberties against excessive government encroachment (intrusion)

These goals, listed in the Constitution’s preamble, outline difficult tasks requiring delicate balance. Tension exists between the government’s responsibilities to maintain order while upholding the commitment to protect liberties. Moreover, we continue to debate and redefine what is meant by each of these purposes. For example, debate exists over the extent to which the government, in promoting the general welfare, may obligate taxpayers to provide a safety net for those unable to provide for themselves. Debate over the role of the national government, in facilitating an environment of equal opportunity versus a commitment to equal outcome through various fiscal and economic policies, is one of the most hotly contested issues of modern U.S. politics.

Photo of Hoover Dam at sunset.

A rainbow hovers in the distance above Hoover Dam, which is an example of a critical infrastructure project to provide water to 23 million people in the southwestern U.S. as well as irrigation for 2.5 million acres of agriculture–a public sector service. (Credit: Richard Stewart, Hoover Dam Visitor Services; WhiteHouse.gov.)

Governments work to achieve their goals and purposes while balance governing tasks within a specific economic framework.  The United States government works primarily in a capitalist, free-market system. Under this framework, the market–through privately owned and operated businesses and companies–provides many needed goods and services to those living within a society. Profit is earned in return for products and services.  Under this system, a majority supply of food, clothing, housing, and other goods and services are provided by what may be called private sector goods and services.  Economists have formally labeled these goods and services as “private goods.”[10]

However, the market cannot provide everything (in enough quantity or at low enough prices) to meet everyone’s needs or to meet all the goals and purposes of government. Therefore, some goods, services, and activities are provided by the government itself, or what may be called public sector goods and services or “public goods.”[11] Two such goods are public roads and education. Some other countries use more public sector goods and services than the United States. Sweden and Denmark tend toward a socialist economic system with a higher expectation of goods, services, and activities being provided by the government.

Chart revisiting the definitions of private versus public sector goods and services.

At federal, state, and local levels, government provides stability and security as well as goods and services. Security and safety require some form of military establishment and also police, fire departments, and other first responders. Government provides other valuable goods and services such as public transportation, mail service; as well as food, housing, and health care for the poor. If a house catches on fire, the fire department does not demand payment before they put the fire out. If someone breaks into a house and tries to harm the occupants, the police will try to protect them and arrest the intruder, but the police department will not request payment for services rendered.

An image of a truck with flashing lights driving through an intersection. The side of the truck reads

A fire department ambulance rushes to the rescue in Chicago. Emergency medical services, fire departments, and police departments are all paid for by government through the tax base, and they provide their services without an additional charge. (Credit: Tony Webster)

The provision of these goods and services is funded by citizens paying into the general tax base. Public goods are funded by all taxpayers and available based either on need or entitlement. NO public sector goods and services are free. Public sector activities are funded by ALL taxpayers and available based either on need or entitlement–or to meet some basic public purpose, such as national defense. Yet, not all public sector goods and services are fully funded by taxpayers.  For example, if you wish to avoid traffic in a large metropolitan area, you may choose to pay a fee (toll) to drive on a less congested toll road, constructed under a government approved contract. Some government administered program benefits include subsidies for goods and services provided through the private sector.

Public sector goods and services include some activities that involve protection of what economists call “common goods,” such as air, water, or fish in the sea–which all people may use, free of charge but are in limited supply.[12] Because everyone can use these goods, they must be protected so a few people do not take everything that is available and leave others with nothing. Government performs the important job of protecting these common goods.

Fishing Regulations–Public Sector Regulation of Common Goods

Governments regulate public access to common goods like natural resources, which may be of limited supply. Public lands and wildlife, however, are not goods the government can simply multiply if supply falls due to demand. If some people take too freely from the supply of common goods, there will not be enough left for others to use.

Government currently regulates access to fish (a common good of limited supply) in order to ensure against extinction–sustainability. Environmentalists want to set strict fishing limits. Commercial fishers resist limits. Fishing limits are set by a combination of scientists, politicians, local resource managers, and groups representing the interests of fishers.[13]

An image of a commercial fishing boat with several nets and a tall mast. The boat is floating on the surface of a large body of water.

Fishing provides income, as well as food, for many Americans. Without government restrictions on the kinds and number of fish that can be caught, the fish population might decline and certain species might become extinct. (Credit: Michael L. Baird)

Politics is a competitive power struggle for gaining and exercising control over the governmental processes or organizational structures that set or carry-out social, political, and economic policy of the country. Politics is the process of who gets what and how. If government chooses to support an ideal such as individualism, it may choose to loosen regulations on business and industry or to cut taxes so that people have more money to invest in business. If it chooses to support an ideal such as egalitarianism or equality, it may raise taxes in order to be able to spend more on public education, public transportation, housing for the poor, and care for the elderly. If, for example, the government is more concerned with national security than with individual liberty, it may authorize the tapping of people’s phones. If liberty is more important, then government will place greater restrictions on the extent that law enforcement agencies can intrude upon citizens’ private communications. The political process and the input of citizens help determine the answers when protection of liberty and provision of security conflict.

Besides providing goods to citizens and maintaining public safety, most governments also provide a means for citizens to participate and make their opinions known to those in positions of power. Western governments like the United States, Britain, France, and others protect citizens’ freedom of speech and a free press. These nations, and others in the world, also allow citizens to vote.

Civic engagement, or the participation that connects citizens to government, is a vital ingredient of politics. In the United States, citizens play an important role in influencing what policies are pursued, what values the government chooses to support, what initiatives are granted funding, and who gets to make the final decisions. Political engagement can take many forms: reading about politics, listening to news reports, discussing politics, attending (or watching televised) political debates, donating money to political campaigns, handing out flyers promoting a candidate, voting, joining protest marches, and writing letters to their elected representatives.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why are governments necessary to society?

  2. What does government do to serve the people?

  3. What functions should governments perform?

  4. What forms of government exist?

  5. How do these forms differ?

  6. How can citizens engage with government and participate in the crucial process of governing?

  7. What form of government exerts almost 100% control over citizens?

  8. What term describes a lack of government, order, or control?

  9. Why did the founders compromise with a representative republic?

  10. What are the six functions of government laid out by the Preamble to the Constitution?

  11. What is the difference between a public good and a private good?

  12. Is it right to interfere with people’s ability to earn money in order to protect the access of future generations to the nation’s common goods?

  13. What is the difference between a representative democracy and a direct democracy?

Terms to Remember

anarchy–absence of government, order, control

common goods–generally natural resources that all people may use but that are of limited supply and are protected and regulated by government, that is, by the public sector

Declaration of Independence–written reasoning for political and economic separation between colonies in America and Great Britain

democracy–a form of government where political power rests in the hands of the people; majority rule; minority rights may be ignored

dictatorship–very strong or authoritarian ruler of a government with excessive regulation and control over public and private lives of individuals

direct democracy–a form of government where people participate directly in making government decisions instead of choosing representatives to do this for them

government–the means by which a society organizes itself and allocates and exercises authority and decision-making in order to accomplish its purposes, goals, and provisions of benefits

majority rule–a fundamental principle of democracy; the majority should have the power to make decisions binding upon the whole

minority rights–protections for those who are not part of the majority

monarchy–a form of government where one ruler, usually a hereditary one, holds political power

oligarchy–a form of government where a handful of elite society members hold political power

political power–influence over a government’s institutions, leadership, or policies

politics–a competitive power struggle for gaining and exercising control over the governmental processes or organizational structures that set or carry-out social, political, and economic policy of the country

preamble–beginning statement; introductory paragraph of the U.S. Constitution, which states the purposes of the government formed by that contractual document

private sector goods and services–goods and services through the free market economy system by businesses and companies to those who pay for them; private goods

public sector goods and services–goods and services including regulation provided by government, paid for by taxpayer’s dollars; public goods

representative democracy–a form of government where voters elect representatives to make decisions and pass laws on behalf of all the people instead of allowing people to vote directly on laws

republic–indirect rule by citizens’ representatives; also known as representative democracy

totalitarianism–a form of government where government is all-powerful and citizens have no rights

tyranny–excessive control over public and private lives of individuals by an individual ruler, group, or government


  1. National Archives Administration at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration
  2. Library of Congress, Primary Documents in American History, Declaration of Independence at https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/DeclarInd.html?&loclr=rec004
  3. Congress.gov Resources, The Federalist Papers at https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-51
  4. Public Domain excerpt from Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207?msg
  5. Public Domain excerpt from Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207?msg
  6. Public Domain excerpt from Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207?msg
  7. Check Freedom House, About Freedom in the World, at https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world
  8. https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=6939&recCount=25&recPointer=9&bibId=1164811
  9. Charters of Freedom, National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charter/constitution_transcript.html
  10. Paul A. Samuelson. 1954. "The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure," Review of Economics and Statistics 36, No. 4: 387–389.
  11. Paul A. Samuelson. 1954. "The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure," Review of Economics and Statistics 36, No. 4: 387–389.
  12. Paul A. Samuelson. 1954. "The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure," Review of Economics and Statistics 36, No. 4: 387–389.
  13. Juliet Elperin, "U.S. Tightens Fishing Policy, Setting 2012 Catch Limits for All Mandated Species," Washington Post, 8 January 2012.