• Roots of American Government

    Roots of American Government

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Preserve Order

Recall Thomas Hobbes' grim view of humans when ungoverned by a central authority. Maintaining social peace is perhaps the fundamental purpose of government. The US Constitution's preamble refers to this function specifically when it declares its intent to "ensure domestic tranquility," an elegant phrase to describe the government's role as society's policeman.

Defend Against External Enemies

Nuclear missilesWhile anthropologists continue to debate whether or not humans are an inherently warlike species, war has been a constant in the human condition since the dawn of recorded civilization. In fact, a growing body of scholarship suggests that the state evolved into its present, modern form because of its superior capacity for waging war vis-à-vis competing forms of political organization. While the development of nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century makes outright conflict between powerful states less likely but more dangerous, one of government's chief functions is still the protection of societies against outside aggression.

Manage Economic Conditions

Modern governments are expected to create the conditions for economic growth and material prosperity. While not all governments do this successfully, it is a function assumed in modern democracies. In the United States, economic policy leaves most decisions to the private markets where individual choice, competition and exchange are presumed to lead to a growing economy. But even free markets need government regulation in the form of enforceable property rights, consumer protection, enforcement of contracts, and health and safety laws to work fairly and efficiently.

Redistribute Income and Resources

MoneyGovernments in economically developed countries are expected to not only make the economic pie grow larger but to distribute the fruits of prosperity. Governments tax wealthier citizens and transfer income and services to certain categories of individuals who are thought to need them. Thus all modern governments can be characterized as welfare states. Welfare states don't just redistribute money from wealthier individuals to poorer ones, they redistribute resources from the young to the old, the disabled, and the socially challenged. Wealthier governments provide subsidized housing, food, and health care to the poor, as well as providing pensions for the elderly.

Provide Collective (Public) Goods

Aircraft CarrierPublic goods are resources that governments play a crucial role in providing. These are usually services that typically private markets cannot provide, or they can provide but only in a way that is inefficient or unfair. National security is a good example. Can private markets provide military security? Sure, military security can be outsourced. Wealthy individuals and governments could hire private mercenaries. But history proves that reliance on mercenaries is a risky strategy for protecting populations because mercenaries may turn on the governments that hired them. They may threaten the very people they are hired to protect. For this reason effective governments tend to monopolize national security. Once provided, everyone shares in its benefits. The same is true of clean air, the postal service, and the interstate highway system. Certain goods are best provided by government, though individuals often disagree over what those are.

Prevent Externalities

Air pollutionExternalities are indirect costs or benefits produced by an activity which impacts society. Externalities affect those who are not direct participants or beneficiaries in the activity, and they may be negative or positive. Factories can produce air pollution that individuals living nearby must breathe, or they may contaminate a city's water supply. Obviously, these are negative externalities. Those suffering from pollution do not share in the profits the polluting factory earns by its activity. Education is an example of a positive externality when members of society other than students benefit from a more educated population. Governments regulate activities that impose harmful or undesirable externalities. Externalities are not always physical, as in the case of pollution. They may also be psychological or aesthetic. A pornographic book store located next to a church or a liquor store located next to a school would both be examples of externalities that city governments prevent through zoning.

Functions of Government

In trying to "form a more perfect Union," the Framers of the Constitution spelled out several key functions government must perform. This activity tests your knowledge about the functions of government.

 

Civil Liberties in a Post-9/11 World

Government serves many vital functions, including national security and protecting civil liberties, from freedom of speech to freedom from unreasonable search and detention. But what happens when these two basic functions of government collide? This video explores the conflict facing the United States government in the post-9/11 world—securing the safety of its citizens without infringing on individual rights.

Video Focus Points

Look for answers to these questions when watching the video:

  • What is the balance between individual freedom and national security?
  • Is the Constitution restricted to American citizens or should it be applied to all people, including enemies of the United States?
  • How much power should be delegated to the president during peace time considering the on-going war on terrorism?

 

Virtual Roundtable

In the post-9/11 era, it is urgent that government defend its citizens from deadly attacks. But government must still protect the fundamental freedoms of individual citizens, as defined in the Constitution. Should individual civil liberties be redefined to recognize modern terrorism's threat to national security?

Jeffery Rosen, Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School

 

Richard Perle, US Assistant Secretary of Defense (1981-1987), Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee (1987-2004)

 

Joseph S. Nye, Professor of International Relations, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

 

Michael W. Macleod-Ball, Chief Legislative & Policy Council, ACLU, Washington, DC

 

Bob Barr, Former Member (1995-2003) US House of Representatives and 2008 Presidential Candidate, Libertarian Party

 

Additional Resources

Websites

USA.gov
The US government’s official web portal offers access to governmental services, links to government information by topic, and an index of US government departments and agencies.

Books

American National Security and Civil Liberties in an Era of Terrorism, edited by David B. Cohen and John W. Wells.
Explores the challenges of maintaining an open society in the face of terrorism. Includes essays on civil liberties, privacy rights, and constitutional limitations in a post-9/11 world.

Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, by Henry David Thoreau.
Philosopher, naturalist, and rugged individualist, Thoreau has inspired generations of readers to think for themselves and question the role of government in society.

Films/Videos

9/11 (2002), directed by Jules and Gedeon Naudet.
The Naudet brothers were originally filming a documentary on the life of firefighters in the New York City Fire Department, but on the morning of 9/11 they were on the scene with the FDNY as they reached the twin towers. An emotionally charged account of the first response to the attacks.