The Purpose of Government

Governments, all governments, are established under God by the will of the people, although not necessarily all the people. They have specific and limited purposes. Governments cannot and should not try to do everything for everyone.

By Mark D. Harris

Democracies, in which each eligible voter selects their favored candidate for each office in a fair process, most visibly follow the will of the people. Dictatorships, however, also require popular support. Saddam Hussein used Sunni Baathists to place him in power and keep him there. As a result, he provided choice government positions to his loyal followers, favored friendly companies with government contracts, and then leaned on the recipients to keep their people in line. Simultaneously, Hussein ensured that Sunni Muslims, though a minority in Iraq, received more consistent electrical power, better services, and more opportunities than the majority Shia Muslims received. Had Hussein not cultivated powerful supporters, he would have fallen. A careful or even cursory study of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, and other dictators throughout time and space shows the same thing. No man is powerful enough to rule a nation alone; he must have help from the people to gain power and keep it.

If all governments are established by the will of a majority or at least of a large minority of the people, we must ask why people establish governments. The answer to that question lies in the reality that people can accomplish things together that they never could accomplish alone. One man could not dig the canals that supported agriculture to supply Nineveh and Babylon, but a company of men could. One man could not repel a band of Scythian invaders, but a platoon of men could. Such groups had to be led and coordinated, so organizations like businesses and civil associations sprang up. These groups, however, lacked coercive power, and thus governments were established.

If individuals acting through groups established governments, it was to promote individual goals, like having enough food to eat, and group goals, like perpetuating the survival of individuals and of the society. Restated, people instituted governments to help them meet human needs, as reflected in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

  1. Physiological needs – air, water, food, shelter, clothing
  2. Safety needs – protection from others (in group and out group), protection from injury, disease, etc.
  3. Love/belonging – friends, family, and other intimate relationships
  4. Esteem – self-respect and admiration from others
  5. Self-actualization – feeling that one’s life counts

Maslow’s concepts are widely accepted. Let us now consider the needs of men and the role of government.

Physiological needs

Air is ubiquitous and free, so it has not received governmental focus through most of history.[1] Water has been plentiful in some areas and a problem in others. From the earliest days of the Bible, desert peoples fought over wells, oases, and other water sources. Food has been another source of contention, with fertile land producing large populations and wealth, both of which attract outside marauders to rape, plunder, and kill. Likewise, hungry people over the centuries have raised many a sword against others. Adolph Hitler yearned to get land in the East to provide food to prevent the starvation of Germans, as they had experienced in World War I. Finally, people need shelter and clothing.

Every society has expected individuals and families to be the primary source of meeting their own physiological needs. Larger organizations helped to solve larger problems, such as building granaries and directing trade, but the teachings of “if a man will not work, neither let him eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10)” and “he who does not care for his family is worse than an infidel (1 Timothy 5:8)” predominate in every culture.

Safety needs

Group defense against outsiders, such as neighboring tribes or armies, justice, and law enforcement have been traditional duties of government. The Caesars, just like Moses long before them, spent large portions of every week ruling on criminal and civil cases. Similarly, they fought to defend their people, or to expand their nations.


Ensuring that people find love and belonging traditionally has not been a duty of government. However, governments have encouraged marriage, procreation, and strong families. They have done so not because bureaucrats care about others’ romances, but societies that lack a large majority of married couples who have children (at least enough to reproduce themselves) and strong families cannot sustain themselves. Birthrates fall, populations shrink, and the economy contracts. Eventually, through war or assimilation, the society dies.

In the early 21st century, marriage and childbearing is declining precipitously in most developed countries. Many countries, such as Germany, Japan, Finland, Estonia, Italy, Australia, and dozens of others, are paying couples to have babies. The United States population is not maintaining itself either; the slight population growth the we enjoy is only due to immigration.

Esteem and Self-Actualization

These two needs on Maslow’s hierarchy have also not traditionally been in the realm of government. However, by establishing the conditions in a society to achieve the more fundamental needs, governments and other organizations can help provide esteem and self-actualization as a side effect of their main mission to their members. For example, on 8 Oct 1918, SGT Alvin Cullum York took control of his scattered and frightened platoon and led an attack on a German machine gun nest that had killed many Americans. The Germans surrendered, and Alvin York personally captured 130 prisoners. His heroism brought him the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States, and the esteem of others. It may have brought him self-actualization, but only Alvin York would know.

Reasonable expectations

But what have people actually expected their governments to do? As noted above, group members have used their governing organizations to coordinate their own efforts to accomplish goals. The government is merely a structuring of the community, not a separate entity. Therefore, “the government” is part of the community rather than somehow existing outside of the community. The “government” did not do things for people. Instead, community members used “the government” to do things for each other. Furthermore, the community of people didn’t only use government, with its coercive powers, to accomplish joint goals. They also used businesses and other organizations without coercive powers. Governmental was not the only tool in the shed.

What should Americans do to make our nation great in the future?

The United States government is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people in a way rarely seen before in human history. Citizens should cherish and improve our institutions, rather than despise and destroy them, because no other nation in history has ever, in the long run, devised anything better.  Here are the fundamental things that Americans must do to make the best possible future for our nation.

  1. Build strong families. Men and women marrying, having children, and raising them to be God-fearing, law abiding citizens is the single most important task for our society. Families meet needs at every level better than any other institution. America must eliminate the governmental, educational, informational, and cultural bias against families.
  2. Build strong communities. Local organizations, not regional, state, or national ones, are the best at meeting local needs. Further, governments with their coercive power can breed abuse and resentment. Churches, schools, civic groups, businesses, and other organizations can bless people in ways that governments cannot.
  3. Promote freedom over security. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the other freedoms of expression are fundamental to American well being. Freedom allows people to meet their personal needs in their own way. Restrictive licensing laws and burdensome business laws, for example, prevent hundreds of thousands of Americans from making a living.
  4. Promote unity over division. Constantly dividing the United States will lead to a DisUnited States. Focusing permanently on the perceived ills of society and disregarding the blessings leads to miserable people and a miserable nation. Attacking other organizations will discourage community members from working together to solve their communities’ problems.

Doing these four things will take power away from the government by meeting people’s needs outside of it. Not doing them will make government bigger and more intrusive in the lives of Americans.


Governments are at their best when they do only those things that they alone can do for the benefit of the people who establish them. Governments are at their worst when they try to do everything for their citizens. Governments’ fundamental task is to promote the survival of their tribe or nation. Such survival requires:

  1. Protection for the people from untimely death (war, internal violence)
  2. Fair and unobtrusive laws and regulations to promote a humming economy
  3. A steady supply of new people, which can only be supplied, in the long run, through strong marriages and families)

Government should do little else.


[1] Clean air and water laws have been enacted only in the past 100 years, since industrialization.

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