Policing to keep citizens safe is a key government duty.
Policing to keep citizens safe is a key government duty.

Governments around the world hold their citizens responsible for many things, such as paying taxes, serving in the military or at least cooperating with the law. But most people expect something in return, and the law itself often assigns duties and responsibilities to the government. Citizens who understand these duties are in the best position to hold their governments accountable.

What Justifies Government Power?

Modern thinking is that a government’s right to rule comes from a “social contract” with the people, who trade some of their independence for protection and other services. The basic idea has been around for a long time—even the “Mandate of Heaven” that backed ancient Chinese Emperors could be revoked if they did a bad job—but at some times in history, ideas were different. In medieval Europe, kings and queens ruled by “divine right,” which meant they were chosen by God to run their domain however they liked. At the other end of the spectrum, some philosophers believe that no amount of service can justify a government holding power over its people—an ideology called “anarchism.”

Protection and Defense

The most basic duty of a government is to protect its people. The government protects citizens from each other by organizing police to enforce the law. It also protects by defending the country from outside forces. For this purpose, most governments are in charge of creating and commanding a military that can repel invasions or even fight for the country’s interests abroad. Even libertarian thinkers, who believe governments should have very little power, usually consider protection and defense to be normal government duties.

The Economy

A capitalist “market economy” is ideally controlled by buyers and sellers, with the government staying out of things. However, most people today expect their governments to take action to promote national prosperity and quality of life. At the minimum, this might just mean refereeing the system to ensure fairness and competition, but it can also involve protecting local businesses, creating jobs, or other measures to actively stabilize and grow the economy. In a communist or fully socialist system, the government is expected to take charge by planning economic growth and running major industries itself.

Social Services

Governments are almost always expected to provide basic services to their citizens, such as building roads and fighting fires, but they sometimes offer much more. To ensure basic well-being for their citizens, many governments provide assistance such as food, housing and medical care to those in need. This is a basic government service in socialist or social democratic systems, but can be controversial in more strongly capitalist countries such as the United States.