Identify the purposes and role of government.
In the United States of America, the government exists first and foremost to protect the political and social rights of the people. As the Declaration of Independence eloquently states, "chief among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Additionally, government exists to resolve conflicts, facilitate cooperation, provide a stable economic framework, and provide essential public goods and services. (These purposes of government are discussed at greater length in lesson 10.) It is important at the outset, however, to be clear that in the United States of America, there is a tradition of minimal government. The political system established by the Constitution was created by the people and for the people, not by political leaders for their own benefit. Consequently, the government was intended to have only those powers that were essential to secure the common good of the people. Elected officials are accountable to the people for the manner in which they discharge their duties. The good of the people is largely decided between themselves as individuals, families, and communities interacting with each other socially and economically.
So, what are the important functions served by government in a political society where the expectation is that government do as little as possible? Have you ever stopped to think about the ways government influences your everyday life? Just think about some of the things you have done today:
Did you eat cereal for breakfast? Did you worry that the milk you poured on it might be contaminated? You probably didn't because the Food and Drug Administration monitors dairies to ensure that the milk they produce is safe. Did you happen to read the label on the cereal box to determine the nutritional content of your breakfast? If you did, you saw federally mandated information about the cereal you were eating.
Did you drive to school, or maybe to the store? Were there huge holes in the road? No, because national, state, and local governments work together to keep the roads in generally good repair. Were cars careening through intersections at high speeds without even slowing down? Was there chaos on the streets? No, because there are laws and police officers to keep order on the streets.
Is the air you breathe and the water you drink free from hazardous chemicals? Yes, because the Environmental Protection Agency and its state and local counterparts work together to limit the amount of pollution produced by businesses and individuals.
Are you fearful that another nation will attack the United States and overthrow our government? Even after the horrors of September 11, Americans do not spend their days in constant fear, because the national government maintains a formidable national defense force to respond to and discourage such attacks.
There are a thousand things the government does each day that allow us to worry less and live more comfortably than we otherwise would. What would your day have been like if there were no government regulation of food products, roads, or the environment? Would you enjoy the freedoms you do without a robust national defense system?
While there are many things government does each day that you appreciate and rely on, there are many things you may wish government did not do. Indeed, there are many people who feel that government does too much or that it does things inefficiently. There are others, however, who feel that government needs to be more active, addressing a wider range of societal problems.
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