Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






What is government? What are its distinguishing characteristics? What are some major functions of government?

1. Government--A Definition

A government is the agent, or instrument, of the political society of which the government is a part. For example, the United States national government is the agent of American society as a whole--the instrument of the national political community we call the United States of America.

A political society's agent, or government, consists of public institutions--institutions which have the authority to make and enforce decisions which are binding on the whole society and all of its members. In American society, the U.S. national, or central, government consists of the public institutions possessing authority to make and carry out decisions which are binding on all individuals dwelling within the territorial borders of the U.S.A. and on the separate governments of the fifty states comprising the American federal union. In South Carolina, as is the case in every member-state of the federal union, there exists an additional set of public institutions--the institutions making up the state government and having the authority to make and enforce decisions binding on all inhabitants of the state, the state being a subnational, regional community (i.e., a subsociety) within the overall American national society.

2. Public Institutions--Distinguishing Characteristics:

Public institutions, the institutions comprising the government of a political society, differ from the other institutions within the society. That is, the public, or governmental, institutions differ from the private institutions--institutions such as private business corporations, labor unions, private schools, religious organizations (except in societies characterized by the union of state and religion), and voluntary clubs and associations. Governmental, or public, institutions differ from private institutions in six ways: (1) The jurisdiction of a government extends to all members of the society, or community, of which it is the agent. (2) The government controls the use of physical force and coercion within the political society. (3) the government, if stable, is characterized by political legitimacy. (4) The decisions of the government are authoritative; the decisions (a) are vested with the authority of the society for and in the name of which they are made and carried out and (b) are binding on all members of the society. (6) Every decision or action of the government is the legitimate concern of the general public.

3. Universality of the Government's Reach within Society:

A government, within the borders of its own society, is universal in its reach. That is, the jurisdiction, or authority, of the government extends to all persons and groups within the society. The authority of a private institution existing and operating in the U.S.A., for example, does not extend to all members of American society. A private institution--let's say the Catholic Church, the Masons, General Motors Corporation, the United Mine Workers of America, Duke University, Phi Beta Kappa, the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Organization of Women, the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts, or a family--has jurisdiction only over its own members or employees. The private institution's policies, by-laws, rules, or regulations govern its own members or employees; they do not apply generally throughout the entire political society. The only set of institutions in American society with jurisdiction extending to all members of the national society is the U.S. national government. And in a given American state, aside from the set of institutions comprising the national government, the only set of institutions that is universal in its reach within the particular state subsociety is the state government.

4. The Government's Control of the Use of Physical Force and Coercion:

The government reserves to itself a monopoly of control over employment of armed force and violence by the society and its members. The government has the legal right to utilize instruments of physical force and coercion, when deemed necessary, to preserve or restore domestic order or to compel obedience to the official decisions of government. In addition, it has ultimate authority to control and regulate the possession and use of such instruments by private citizens and groups. The government possesses the authority to decide who does and who does not legally go around armed within society. It has the power to decide if--and if so, under what conditions--private citizens shall be allowed to use armed force and violence.

5. The Government and Political Legitimacy:

A stable government in a stable society is characterized by political legitimacy; that is, the government possesses legitimate political authority. The people making up the political believe that the government has the moral as well as the legal right to exercise political power over all subordinate parts of the society. The government is widely perceived by the citizenry to have the legitimate right to make and carry out decisions which apply to and are binding on all members of the society. Within the political society, there is the feeling, widespread and strongly held, that (1) the government itself is legitimate, (2) the officeholders in the government obtained their positions by legitimate means, (3) these government officeholders possess legitimate authority to make binding decisions, and (4) the decisions themselves are legitimate and ought to be obeyed. Political legitimacy reflects the underlying consensus within society--the widespread agreement on matters of fundamental importance to the society--which is indispensable to the longterm existence and operation of the government, including its ability to make and enforce binding decisions for the entire society.

6. Authoritative Decisionmaking and Action by the Government:

The decisions made and carried out by governmental offices and institutions are authoritative. The official decisions made and implemented by government for and in the name of the entire society are authoritative decisions. Governmental decisions are authoritative because they (1) are vested with the authority of the overall society for which they are made and enforced, (2) are binding on all members of the society, and (3) are accepted as binding by the vast majority of the society's members.

Compliance with the government's decisions is not voluntary; compliance is mandatory, or compulsory. The decisions of the government are not requests or recommendations; they are authoritative commands that must be obeyed. Standing behind these decisions are the instruments of physical force and coercion--the police, the military forces, the courts, and the prisons. The government, in other words, possesses the legitimate right to resort to--or threaten to resort to--armed force and violence, if necessary, to obtain citizens' obedience to its authoritative, binding decisions. One political observer has referred to the government as the "shotgun behind the door."

Also standing behind the decisions of government and making them authoritative are widespread and strongly-held feelings that the decisions not only have to be obeyed in order to avoid punishment for disobedience but also should be obeyed because it is the moral as well as legal duty of citizens to comply with the laws of the political community. In other words, governmental decisions bear the force of legitimacy; they are considered to be legitimate by all or most members of the society. Because the decisions are widely accepted as legitimate, they bear a very high probability of compliance. It is highly probable that the decisions will be obeyed, with few, if any, members of the society challenging the right of the government to make the decisions or its capacity and will to effectively enforce them.

7. The Government's Authoritative Allocation of Resources and Values:

The official decisions and actions of government help allocate society's relatively scarce resources. When the government makes and implements decisions that are binding on all members of the society, it authoritatively allocates resources and values for the society. That is, the decisions and actions of government have the effect of authoritatively distributing the benefits and costs of living in politically organized society.

The allocations made by government differ from those made by the institutions comprising the private sector of the economy. The private economic sector engages in a market allocation of resources and values, distributing society's resources and values--benefits and costs--by means of the market mechanism. In the market, millions of individuals, groups, and firms receive society's benefits, advantages, and rewards in accordance with their ability and willingness to pay for them or provide satisfactory products and services in voluntary exchange.

In contrast, the government engages in a command, or authoritative, allocation of resources and values. The government accomplishes the allocation by making and enforcing official decisions which are binding on all members of the society. The government allocates resources and values through exercise of its legitimate authority to (1) lay and collect taxes, (2) borrow money on the credit of the general public, (3) appropriate and dispense funds from the public treasury, (4) regulate and restrict human behavior, and (5) generally, make and enforce laws and other government rules and regulations. In the exercise of this authority, the government authoritatively decides which individuals, groups, and firms within the society will receive more of the rewards, benefits,and advantages and which will bear more of the costs and burdens.

In short, government allocates benefits and costs by means of public policy, while the private economy accomplishes the allocation through the voluntary, private decisions and actions of millions of individuals, groups, and firms in the marketplace.

In a predominantly capitalistic society, such as the U.S.A., the private economic sector allocates, by far, the greater proportion of society's resources and values. Government, however, allocates some very important resources and values. The benefits and the burdens--the rewards and deprivations--authoritatively distributed by government through decisions and actions on public policy affect the interests of many individuals, groups, and firms within society. In adopting and implementing income-tax policy, for example, the national government determines whether private savers and investors will be rewarded or penalized, encouraging or discouraging savings and investment and thereby very impor- tantly affecting the nation's rates of capital formation and real economic growth (i.e., economic growth with low inflation), which in turn decisively affect the economic well-being of virtually the entire American population. To give another example, national, state, and local funding of the public schools, colleges, and universities as well as public policies governing such matters as free choice of schools, home schooling, the status of charter schools, school vouchers, and tax treatment of enrollment in private educational institu- tions significantly affect the ability of middle-income persons, the bulk of the American population, to obtain good educations for their sons and daughters. To mention still another example, public policies affecting Medicare, Social Security, public and private employee retirement programs, and tax-sheltered annuities impact significantly on the interests of a segment of American society that is steadily growing in numbers and political importance--workers who have retired and those who are nearing retirement.

8. Governmental Activity and Public Concern:

The activities and functions of the government are the legitimate concern of the entire adult population comprising the political society. Anything the government does or fails to do is the business of the general public. Authoritative decisionmaking and action by the government entails the expenditure of money from the public treasury. Every government policy adopted and carried out, every government program authorized, funded and implemented, involves spending tax money--money which the government demands and extracts from the members of the political society. Since the costs of government are borne by the taxpaying members of the community, the decisions and actions of the government, including its internal operations, are the business of the citizenry at large.

This cannot be accurately said of any private, non-governmental organization or institution operating within American society. The U.S.A., or any other political society that is not totalitarian, recognizes and permits the existence within its boundaries of a large private sphere of human endeavor, a substantial and significant dimension of human life that is not the business of the general public. In the U.S.A., the component institutions of the large private economic sector make and carry out many decisions that are of no concern to the general public. It is true that particular decisions and actions of private business corporations may have--and, on numerous occasions, have had--spinoff effects which adversely affect the safety and well-being of the whole society or are detrimental to the legal rights of other business firms or to the rights of individual citizens. Whenever such conditions obtain, the relevant decisions and actions of the private companies are the business of the general public and the companies' activities are subject to government regulation and control. At the same time, however, the corporations remain essentially private in nature and purpose, with their internal operations being largely their own private business, not the general concern of the political community at large.


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