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Grolier Online
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Functions of Government

Maintenance of Authority. One of the principal functions of government is to remain in power. Governments do not relinquish their authority unless compelled to do so. Many of the actions of politicians and civil servants can be explained by the need to maintain and enhance their power.

Every government strives to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It may identify itself with ancient traditions, with hope for the future, or with fear of a common enemy. Some governments employ repression, never relaxing their vigils against real or imagined opponents. Even democracies, when threatened, are likely to engage in a search for subversives and "enemies of the people."

When a regime draws its main support from a privileged class or group that decreases in numbers and strength, when a government becomes ineffective in handling domestic affairs or countering external threats, or when a society's consensus on the principles and goals of government evaporates, a government tends to lose authority. The French monarchy in the 18th century and the Russian monarchy in the 20th century were based on aristocracies that had lost much of their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Eventually these regimes were unable to enforce their laws, and revolutions swept them from power.

Governments tend, therefore, to foster widespread ideological commitment to the nation through patriotic ceremonies, propaganda, and civic education; they employ armed forces and intelligence-gathering organizations for national defense; they maintain police and prison systems to ensure domestic order; and they undertake the administration of supervisory and regulatory functions to carry out national goals by establishing various bureaucracies to handle each complex function.

Administration. All governments recognize the principle that the public must be protected and served. The citizen, in effect, surrenders a degree of individual sovereignty to the government in return for protection of life and property and the delivery of essential services. Governments supervise the resolution of conflicting interests, the workings of the political process, the enforcement of laws and rights, and the monitoring of national income and international trade; they regulate economic and social relationships among individuals and private organizations; and they carry out enterprises such as production of military goods, provision of postal services, and ownership of power utilities and public works. Among the most basic services provided by government are the printing and coining of money, the provision of roads, sewers, water, education, and social and welfare services.

With the growth of the welfare state, governments began to provide services such as social security and health insurance. But the scope of government regulation is now much broader. In the United States the government sets minimum wages, limits the rates charged by public utilities, buys farm commodities to keep prices up, forbids the sale of harmful foods and drugs, sets standards for gasoline consumption by automobiles, requires manufacturers to install antipollution devices, and monitors the safety of factories. Federal, state, and local governments in the United States also engage directly in economic activity. They impose taxes, produce and consume goods, sell electric power, lend money to farmers, and insure bank deposits.

In other countries governments intrude even further into the workings of the economy. In Western Europe governments own and operate telephone, radio, and television services, railroads, coal mines, and aircraft companies. In some countries, such as Sweden and Great Britain, the entire health system is also run by the state. In countries with Communist governments, such as the former USSR , North Korea, China, and Cuba, the state has attempted to control the entire economic life of the nation. All economic planning is centralized in the government and its bureaucracies. When the system fails to produce the goods and services expected by the people, the government is forced to increase the level of repression of its citizens in order to remain in power.

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