United States Government: Why form a government?

Learning Objectives

  • Define Basic Forms of Government
  • Examine Various Forms of Government
  • Consider the Level of Order/Control Exerted Over Citizens by Various Forms of Government
  • Comprehend Basic Functions of Government

People compete for resources, recognition, power, territory, etc. This competition is controlled by government, which defines and manages the ground rules.

Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that “political bands” of government connect citizens of a nation. These connections of government may “secure” individual rights and manage competition if the form of government chosen balances protection of liberty and provision of security.[1] People form a government and agree to rules and even written contracts in order to protect their liberties and rights. No government is perfect. 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?

The term government describes the means by which a society organizes itself and allocates authority in order to accomplish goals and provide benefits. Countries provide benefits via different governmental forms and structures.  Most governments seek to provide defense, education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation and trade for their citizens. The form of governmental organization a country choses should not be confused with politics, gaining and exercising control of processes for setting and achieving goals, especially those related to the division of resources within a nation.

John Locke, an English political philosopher of the seventeenth century, posited that all people have natural and unalienable (inseparable) rights to life, liberty, and property. If people have natural rights of self-determination, does it then follow that all social contracts/governments should involve individual consent from the people? In the eighteenth century, in Great Britain’s North American colonies and later in France, 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.

Consider the Original

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: Alexander Hamilton or James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

[…] “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.” […][2]

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.  The individuals organizing governmental control and imposition of 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.

While most governments seek to establish order and control, not all seek to protect liberty or property.

 

GOVT 2305 Government Order and Control Chart

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.

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. Because decisions are 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.

GOVT 2305 Government Forms of Government Chart

A generalized view of a few basic forms of government reveal the reality that most actual governments around the world are a mix of elements listed in this chart.

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.

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)

At the other end of the political spectrum are elite-driven forms of government. In a monarchy, one ruler, usually a hereditary ruler, holds political power. 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 power. Another nondemocratic form of government is oligarchy, in which a handful of elite members of society, often from the same political party, hold all political power. 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. 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.

link to learning

 

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

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[3]

The framers of government in the new United States of America understood the dangers of anarchy, the problems of monarchy (the oppressions of a distant and disengaged monarchy spurred a desire for revolt) 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 Functions of Government

Consider the Original

The preamble to the Constitution clearly outlines the basic functions of government 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.[4]

What are these six (6) goals for government?

  1. unify (form a union) to maintain order and liberty
  2. formulate rules to establish order and a means of carrying out punishment (establish justice) for anyone overstepping the rules
  3. make sure the new rules and punishments help keep order within the boundaries of the nation (domestic tranquility)
  4. make sure the union protects its citizens from invasion & threats–military, political, and economic (common defense)
  5. promote social, political, and economic prosperity while supporting the provision of basic necessities for those not able to do for themselves (general welfare)
  6. maintain (secure liberty) individual liberties against excessive government encroachment

These goals outline difficult tasks requiring delicate balance.

GOVT 2305 Government Functions of Government Chart

Most governments work to balance governing tasks within a specific economic framework.  The United States government works closely with its capitalist economic system. The interconnectedness of the two affect the distribution of goods and services. The market provides many needed goods and services. An ample supply of food, clothing, and housing are provided by private businesses earning a profit in return. These goods and services are known as private goods.[5]

The market cannot provide everything (in enough quantity or at low enough prices) to meet everyone’s needs. Therefore, the government also provides goods or services–public goods. Two such public goods are national security and education.

If you wish to avoid traffic in a large metropolitan area, you may choose to pay a fee to drive on a less conjested toll road.  Toll goods are available to people if they can pay the price. Toll goods occupy a middle ground between public and private goods. All parents may send their children to public schools in the United States, or they may choose to send their children to a private school which will charge them fees. Unlike private or toll goods, public goods are typically available to all.
GOVT 2305 Government Types of Goods Chart

At the federal, state, and local level, 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 education, public transportation, mail service, and 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. The provision of these goods and services is funded by citizens paying into the general tax base. No public goods are “free.” Public goods are funded by all taxpayers and available based either on need or entitlement.

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)

Government also performs the important job of protecting common goods: goods that all people may use free of charge but are of limited supply, such as fish in the sea or clean drinking water. 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.

link to learningThis federal website shares information about the many services the government provides.

 

Fishing Regulations

Governments regulate public access to common goods like natural resources, which may be of limited supply. If more public schools are needed, the government may build more. Public lands and wildlife, however, are not goods the government can simply multiply if supply falls due to demand. Indeed, 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.[6]

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)

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 democracies 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.

Politics is a power struggle for control of the process by which choices are made regarding allocation of goods and resources as well as the pursuit of social, political and economic policy. 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, which calls for equal treatment for all and the destruction of socioeconomic inequalities, 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 and restrict what newspapers may publish. 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.

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. What form of government exerts almost 100% control over citizens?
  2. What term describes a lack of government, order, or control?
  3. Why did the founders compromise with a representative republic?
  4. What are the six functions of government laid out by the Preamble to the Constitution?
  5. What is the difference between a public good and a private good?
  6. 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?
  7. What is the difference between a representative democracy and a direct democracy?

Terms to Remember

anarchy–absence of government, order, control

common goods–goods that all people may use but that are of limited supply

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–excessive regulation of public and private lives of individuals subject to government

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 authority in order to accomplish collective goals

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–struggle for power over the process by which we decide how resources will be allocated and which policies government will pursue

preamble–beginning statement

private goods–goods provided by private businesses that can be used only by those who pay for them

public goods–goods provided by taxpayers to the government that anyone can use and that are available to all without charge/fees

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

toll goods–goods that are available to many people but is used only by those who can pay the price for use

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

tyranny–excessive control by individual, group, or government


  1. Library of Congress, Primary Documents in American History, Declaration of Independence at https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/DeclarInd.html?&loclr=rec004
  2. Congress.gov Resources, The Federalist Papers at https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-51
  3. https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=6939&recCount=25&recPointer=9&bibId=1164811
  4. Charters of Freedom, National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charter/constitution_transcript.html
  5. Paul A. Samuelson. 1954. "The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure," Review of Economics and Statistics 36, No. 4: 387–389.
  6. Juliet Elperin, "U.S. Tightens Fishing Policy, Setting 2012 Catch Limits for All Mandated Species," Washington Post, 8 January 2012.