The Role of Government

Government is the institution that exercises the power to make laws and enforce them. It also sets the national agenda and allocates resources to different activities. Government policies often provide for national defense, address environmental concerns, define and protect property rights, and attempt to make markets more competitive. Most governments also redistribute income. Governments may also monopolize particular goods or services or regulate the pricing of certain products and businesses. Governments exercise power through agencies, bureaucracies, and departments that are staffed by employees and contractors. Governments can be found at the federal, state, and local levels.

Many citizens are ambivalent about the appropriate role of government, but majorities believe that it does a good job at protecting them from terrorism, responding to natural disasters, and strengthening the economy. They are less positive about the job it does at educating children, helping people out of poverty, and managing immigration.

A common view is that the proper role of government is to solve urgent problems that can’t be solved by individuals or business. These include addressing natural disasters, maintaining the economy, and providing safe food, water, and medicine. Government should also make sure that everyone has the opportunity to achieve their full potential, which requires a level playing field where all citizens are treated equally under the law.

Despite these legitimate roles, there are limits to how far government can go in addressing such issues. One important constraint is that, when using force to reallocate wealth or other scarce resources, government actions can be costly and reduce overall wealth. A second limit is that elected officials have incentives to advance their own interests and those of the political party to which they belong. They also have an incentive to use government power to maximize their chances of being re-elected. This creates perverse incentives that can lead to abuse of power by government officials.

The founders of the United States understood these limits and built a system of separated powers and checks and balances into the Constitution. The Congress, Senate, and House of Representatives are the legislative branch that makes laws. The President and Cabinet are the executive branch, which carries out those laws. And the judicial branch is there to ensure that the laws and how they are carried out are consistent with the Constitution.

At the local level, city councils act as legislatures and fulfill other governing responsibilities. They also oversee city budgeting, develop and pass ordinances, and provide recreational, educational, social, and other public services. The judicial branch of local government is the municipal court system, which hears cases such as traffic tickets and disorderly conduct. The higher-level district and circuit courts also handle some civil and criminal cases.

The idea of separation of powers and a check on government power dates back to antiquity and Aristotle’s “Politics.” James Madison, the framer of the U.S. Constitution, was influenced by these ideas and by John Locke, the late 17th-century British philosopher.