Meaning and Functions of Government


Meaning and Functions of Government

The agency through which the purpose and cardinal objectives of a state are achieved is called government. The government whose organization could be seen either through the territorial structure or by functionality carries out the day-to-day activities of the state. 

Government is a creation of a state and could be geographically structured at three-tier as the case in Nigeria, thus: federal, states, and local government councils with distinct organ and other functionaries.

You will learn more about the meaning, functions, origin, necessity as well as tiers and forms of government this in this post as we progress.

Table of Content

By the end of this post, you will be able to:

1.   Explain the concept of government

2.   Distinguish between government and the state

3.   Explain the basic functions of government.


Meaning of Government

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers three definitions of government:

(i) 'The group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.'

(ii) 'A particular system used for controlling country, state, etc.'

(iii) 'The process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.'

Evident from the foregoing is the fact that the government can be defined by the people involved, the system in place, or the process in use.

Thus, the government is defined as the vehicle for the governance of society, which is the establishment and enforcement of rules and provisioning of basic services which society requires but which would otherwise not be available or might be in conflict between individuals and the various subdivisions within society.

Similar to the foregoing, Black's Law Dictionary posits that institutions of the government regulate the relationships among members of a society and between the society and outsiders and that they have the authority to make decisions for the society to meet goals and maintain order.

The government plays a fundamental role in the economic development process. Market rules and operating procedures are set and enforced by the government. The government plays a role in the economy through the provision of public goods that are collective in nature and through efforts to counter market imperfections such as externalizes or poor information. 

For example, the government provides public infrastructure that services economic activities. It also provides public services to both business and households. Again, the government decides what is best for the individuals and groups and how to utilize available resources to provide the best living standard for the citizenry. Can you imagine living in a society without transportation, water supply, road network and without other social infrastructural facilities?

How it would be like if nobody was charged with the responsibility to make sure laws are made and respected or to provide a plan where buildings should go and keep our environment clean and safe?

We need the government to take care of many of these things. Government operations are those activities involved in the running of a state to produce value for the citizens. The significant feature of modern (liberal) government is a democracy, and two major attributes of democracy found in most writings on liberal democracy are the principle of rule of law and the theory of separation of powers.

Scholars have argued that the government can be explained and understood along three broad interpretations.

These include:

1.  Government as a process of governing

2.  Government as an institution of the state

3.  Government as a field of study

Government as a Process of Governing

As a process of governing, the government refers to how a particular state is being governed. It also means the entire processes, operations and activities that are involved in the governing of a state. In the course of governing a state, the government is divided into different organs and tiers, which include the legislature, judiciary and executive organs, and the federal, state and local governments respectively.

The legislative arm is responsible for lawmaking; such laws must not be arbitrary but should be based on a critical assessment of the collection of relevant information. The executive arm performs the activity of implementation of these laws made by the legislature.

The executive mobilizes all the necessary machinery to ensure the implementation of adequate policies and laws made by the legislature. More often than not, problems arise while implementing government policies; such problems are resolved by the judiciary. The judiciary performs a crucial role in explaining or interpreting the laws properly.

It is therefore seen that both the organs and tiers of government are all effectively involved in the effective running of the affairs of a state.

Hence, we can posit that government as an art or process of governing refers to the process through which the legislature, executive and judicial organs of government variously carry out their assigned functions and responsibilities at federal, state and local governments.


Government as an Institution of the State

This refers to the mechanism that guides the control and direction of a state. These are the institutions, Ministries, parastatals and Agencies (MDAs) of state responsible for the administration of the state.

The institutions of a state are broadly categorized into formal and informal institutions. The formal institutions are the legislature, executive and judiciary; while the informal institutions comprise of the pressure groups, political parties and trade unions.

The government in this context refers to the institution of a State because it is formed and established for the common good of the people who chose to come together and have a common destiny. Government is therefore necessary as an institution of the state because it is through the government that the will of the state, which is an abstract entity, is realized.

Government transforms the abstractness of the state into a concrete reality that can be seen and recognized. It is the government as an institution that governs, and this entails regulating individual’s relationship and providing for the fundamental human rights of the people as well as the protection of citizens from internal insecurity and external aggression.

Read On: Definition, Functions, Origin & Characteristics of the State

Government as a Field of Study

As a field of study, the government is seen as a branch of human endeavor that studies agencies, institutions and the forces that operate in the state. It is studied as Government in post-primary schools, and Political Science or Politics in higher institutions. Government as an academic field of study also has sub-disciplines or fields such as Political Theory, Political Economy, Comparative Government, and International

Relations, Public Administration, Public Policy, Local Government Studies, among others.

As a field of study, Government imbues an individual with logical reasoning. It prepares citizens for active and meaningful participation in the art of governing. More fundamentally, it not only enlightens citizen of their fundamental human rights and obligations but also creates a deep sense of national consciousness, cohesion and patriotism in them.


State and Government Compared

A state is a geographical entity made up of people who have or believe they have the followings in common: culture, language, history, tradition, and religion in a fixed territory (boundary). The term state can be used to mean a country.

A state is an independent and sovereign entity with a system of law and an organized government, which has certain administrative tasks to be carried out for its proper functioning.

The government carries out these administrative tasks. It has the right to exercise power over the territory and the people. The state is the territory in which the government can practice its authority. A state is like an organization and the government is like the management team. A state has the following characteristics: sovereignty; population; territory and government, which distinguish it from any other union or association.

Government, on the other hand, is a political or the ruling administrative means that serves as the agent or machinery through which the purpose or goals for which the state or country is established are achieved.

However, while state exists in perpetuity except in the event of its collapses, governments the world over change through elections or by other means. Another difference is that while government functionaries are visible, the state exists in a ‘spiritual realm’, you only hear references made to the state but you cannot see the entity called the state physically even though the day to day activities of the government are done in her name.

Read On: Public Policy: Meaning and Nature

Important Differences between the State and Government

1.  The state has four basic elements or characteristics, viz: population; territory; government and sovereignty. Government is a narrow concept and it is an element or characteristic of the state.

2.  The state is regarded as an organic concept, which the government is a part thereof.

3.  The state is more or less permanent and continues from time immemorial. But the government is temporary. It changes frequently. A government may come and go, but the State continues. Forever.

4.  It is a known fact that citizens are members of the state in entirety but not all of them are members of the government. The government consists of only a few selected citizens. The organs of the government consist of only a few elected or selected citizens.

5.  The state possesses sovereignty. Its authority is absolute and unlimited. Any other institution cannot take its power away. Government possesses no sovereignty, no original authority, but only derivative powers delegated by the state through its constitution. Powers of government are delegated and limited. Government safeguards the sovereignty of the state.

6.   The state is an abstract concept whereas government is a concrete one. Nobody sees the state and the state never acts. The government is a physical manifestation and it acts for the state. For instance, while Nigeria is the state, Buhari’s administration is the government of the Nigerian state.

7.  All states are identical in character and nature. Whether big or small, the characteristics of the State do not change. But governments are of different types and they may vary from state to state. The government may be based on democracy, monarchy, theocracy, or oligarchy. Various political scientists have given different classifications of government.

8.  Lastly, the citizens have a right to go against the government and not against the state. The state only acts through the government and the government may make mistakes and may be sanctioned for it but not the state. The state can do no wrong or make mistake, therefore, the citizens only have rights to go against the government and not the state.


Functions of Government

Functions of Government

Government is a sufficient condition for peaceful and prosperous existence.

Thus, functions of government can simply be outline as follows: defence and security functions; regulation of social life; maintenance of unity in society; provision of infrastructures, political, economic and social functions; international relations.

To understand the basis for the fore-going functions, it is pertinent to explain the ‘state of nature’, the hypothetical condition of humanity before the evolution of modern states, and the consequent ‘Social Contract’, as articulated by Thomas Hobbes. 

In his book, Leviathan (1651, Ch.13), Hobbes describes man as selfish, pursuing his own interest at the expense of others in a condition he hypothetically explains as “kill whom you can and take away what you can and from this spring all possibilities of internecine warfare.”

He concludes, “the state of nature is the ill, unhappy and intolerable condition of life.

The life of man is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short.” It is against the background of the above scenario that there is the need for a central authority called “government” to be saddled with the primary responsibility of maintaining law and order in order to ensure peace and tranquility in the society.

However, because of certain changes in the development of society in modern times – socio-cultural, technological advancements, political changes etc., as well as the type of political system, the functions of government now extend beyond protection and security of lives and properties into broader areas.

These include:

1.  Interpersonal and intergroup relationship. This is necessary to maintain order and stability,

2. Government is expected to mobilize all the human and material resources within and even outside its confiners (territories) for the promotion of the welfare of the citizens.

3. Government is expected not only to mobilize resource; it also should distribute them fairly to its members.

4.  All these activities involve greater regulation of the activities and relationships of people.

By and large, in democratic nations, the roles, powers and responsibilities of the government are set out in the constitution of such states.

Conclusion on Meaning and Functions of Government

The evolution theories of State make the need for a government imperative in human society for without government humanity may not live in peace and harmony, which are the important elements for development and growth. The relationship between the State and government is that of a principal and an agent.

The state and government are like semen’s twins because without a State, there cannot be a government and a government cannot operate except on the authority of the State. The State has set objectives, which can only be accomplished through the machinery of the government that holds power in trust for the people based on the authority of the State.

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