The government is a system of political and military power that enforces laws, administers justice, provides national security, performs public works and takes care of people. Governments also have the role of protecting their citizens from violence, a function that Thomas Hobbes describes as “leviathan,” and that is still very important today in the world’s fragile states and essentially ungoverned regions. The first and oldest justification for government is that it protects the lives of its citizens. Governments do this by establishing police forces, a judicial system, and defense systems to keep their citizens safe from each other and foreign foes.
Another justification for government is that it creates and maintains a measure of peace and prosperity. This requires the assertion of authority over vast distances, the raising of large armies and collecting taxes to pay for them. It also encourages literacy and numeracy, and fosters social institutions such as hospitals and universities. The resulting economic development is a great benefit for all the people of a nation.
Many governments also play a critical role in providing basic necessities for their citizens. They take care of their citizens’ health, education and housing needs by offering free or low-cost programs. These include medical insurance, food assistance and housing grants. In some countries, they also provide jobs, especially in the armed forces and other national-security agencies.
In recent years, the role of government has changed significantly in some countries. Some of these services have been privatized, or moved from the government to private companies. In other cases, like enforcing the law, these roles have been left to police forces and courts. In many cases, these changes have been driven by the desire to cut costs and to make government more efficient.
A key part of the government’s bureaucracy consists of its cabinet departments, led by secretaries appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. These heads oversee huge networks of offices and agencies with various missions. There are also independent executive agencies, headed by directors who report to the president but operate with a high degree of autonomy from the larger cabinet departments. Some of these include the Central Intelligence Agency, which collects information vital to national interests, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, charged with developing technological innovation.
Critics of the bureaucracy point to its chronic incompetence and the lack of incentive for the government to become more efficient or responsive. This is because, in most cases, if an agency does not meet the goals set by Congress or the president, it will not be penalized. This has led to a culture of special interest lobbying and crony capitalism, where businesses or unions give political contributions in exchange for policy changes that will benefit them. Some economists believe this has undermined the effectiveness of the government.