In order to discuss the elements of a civil society it is first necessary to provide a context by defining the elements of government and society overall. The goal here is not to delve too deeply into all aspects of government, but to define a basic but comprehensive framework model for government, primarily government in the United States, that will facilitate a discussion of civil society.
A separate paper elaborates the Elements of Society, of which government is only one part.
The intention is to focus on government in modern, western-style societies, with the United States as the main focus, but including Europe and other regions of the world as well.
The real goal here is not to offer an engaging and captivating narrative, a good read, but to provide a baseline reference on what a typical modern, western-style government looks like, with the real goal of defining simply the starting point for discussion of activities that occur in the context of government, as well as the starting point for discussion of how to improve government, to make it better and closer to a more ideal government.
This paper is simply attempting to catalog current best practice for a modern, western-style government, so that when someone says “government”, we can all know what that is referring to.
Also see the paper on Elements of Society for a similar treatment of the larger context of society itself, of which government is only one element.
Government is the vehicle for 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.
Role in society
We have a chicken and egg problem with respect to whether government devolves from society or society devolves from government. They have both evolved together as a feedback loop, since the days of the earliest human tribes and villages. Even animal groups have a leader and hierarchical status or pecking order.
In modern society we at least attempt to whitewash the idea of hierarchy and pecking order at the level of citizens, with just a single level of citizenship and individuals, with hierarchy reserved for organizations such as government, business, and nongovernmental organizations.
A simple, operational definition of the role of government in society is that government provides the rules, enforcement, and services that individuals, businesses, and organizations cannot or wish not to provide.
This paper is intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, focused on the reality of government today rather than speculation about a more ideal form of government in a more ideal world.
Again, this paper focus on the reality of what we have today rather than on proposing changes that progress in the direction of a more ideal government.
Fairness is a fundamental quality and requirement for a modern, western-style society. In addition to the mere promise of equality and justice, members of society must actually feel and experience a sense of fairness and justness in their daily lives and in all of their interactions with the apparatus of governance and social order.
A fundamental of a just society is freedom from tyranny, freedom from the arbitrary, capricious whim of a dictator or ruling elite.
Individuals and groups tend to seek and accumulate power. That is part of human nature, but can result in the abuse, death, or enslavement of weaker individuals and groups. One of the primary roles of government is to moderate and balance the accumulation of power to dramatically reduce the abuses that result from unchecked power.
Role of government
This paper focuses on the abstract role of government in society rather than delving into specific functional roles that government fulfills or could or shouldn’t have in society. Not that a discussion of the functional roles of government is not of great interest, but the framework described by this paper is independent of which specific functional roles government should play in society.
For example, this framework recognizes the role of government in promoting and even subsidizing aspects of society, but without detailing which aspects of society should be given such focus.
Granted, some special roles are mentioned here, such as maintaining domestic tranquility, national defense and foreign policy, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Common roles that are subjective, under debate, and in a constant state of flux include:
- Health care
- Weather reporting and forecasting
- Illegal drug use and trafficking
- Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms
- Medical drug development and safety
- Medical and health care safety
- Food production and safety
- Social welfare, including Social Security and various welfare programs
- Scientific research
- Social research
- Vehicle and transportation safety
- Environmental protection
- Wilderness preservation
- Urban redevelopment
- Workplace and worker safety
- Labor relations
- Civil rights protection
- Equal opportunity, countering discrimination
- Support for the arts
- Historical preservation
- Economic and technology development
- Economic statistics
- Money and monetary policy — defining unit of money, currency, coins, and monetary policy for controlling the supply of money and inflation
- Credit — supplement the private sector banking system, such as the SBA and mortgage loans
General welfare of society
Although the term welfare is commonly applied specifically to financial social support programs for those in need, the general concept of the general welfare of society refers to three main qualities of life for the members of society:
- Fortunes or success
It is an open matter of debate whether the essential role of government is merely to protect the ability of the people to pursue their own general welfare or to aid and assist in providing that sense of welfare.
The reality is a hybrid, with the public and private sector sharing in the provisioning of goods and services necessary for the pursuit of the general welfare of the members of society.
To achieve peace of mind, members of society need to feel safe from:
- Invasion and military attack
- Insurrection and other domestic unrest
- Threats while traveling abroad
- Threats to vital interests abroad
- Natural disaster
- Severe weather
- Wild animals
- Poisonous plants
- Toxic chemical release
- Unsafe buildings
- Unsafe equipment
- Unsafe water
- Unsafe air
- Erosion of land
- Unsafe food
- Unsafe drugs
- Dangerous or illegal drugs
- Unsafe medical treatment
- Abuse of power
- Infringement of rights
Each threat to security must be met with a variety of forms of protection and responses in order to achieve security and peace of mind.
Security from a given threat involves:
- Monitoring and intelligence gathering to detect early warning signals
- Preventing, deterring, or avoiding the threat
- Minimizing the threat
- Moderating the threat
- Combating the threat
- Curing the threat
- Mitigating the threat
- Otherwise responding to the threat
- Recovery from the threat
- Analyze for lessons learned — improve security for future occurrences of the threat
The threats can be place in six categories:
- National security
The latter three are usually combined and treated together in many organizations as Environment, Safety, and Health, abbreviated as ESH, EHS, or HSE.
Diversity is a general goodness in society that has multiple advantages, such as:
- Enhanced survival of society in the face of evolving and unknown threats
- Inclusiveness to empower individuals to feel more invested in society and more welcome in communities
- Stronger sense of community that enables the community to be richer, stronger, and durable
- Enhanced potential for specialization
- Greater opportunity for participation
- Greater market for goods and services
- Greater opportunity for use of goods and services
- Greater opportunity for growth and expansion of society
Government has a role in supporting and encouraging diversity, as well as helping people and organizations cope with diversity.
Growth and expansion
Growth and expansion in a society can occur in many dimensions, including:
- Raw numbers, population
- Greater diversity
- More goods and services
- More communities
- More varied and diverse communities
- More government services
- More businesses
- More organizations
- More types of organizations
Growth and expansion in society is generally a good thing, but within limits, such as:
- Limited physical resources, including land, food, water, energy, housing
- Limited capacity of communities to provide both services and an enduring sense of community
- Social systems and governance can keep pace with the rate of growth and expansion
Responsibility for growth and expansion is shared across all levels of society, from individuals to communities to business to organizations and to government.
The simple model of government
The starting point for the elements of government is the traditional model of the three branches of government:
The simple model is a bit too abstract for a usable framework to discuss the details about how government really works and how people and civil society both fit into it and can interact with it and influence it.
Collectively, the branches of government are generally and generically referred to as the state. Technically, the state is the more abstract entity that corresponds to the apparatus for defining and maintaining the country. The government is the manifestation of the state. The U.S. Constitution defines the state, the U.S. government implements the Constitution. Generally, the terms government and state can be used as synonyms.
Generally, the terms country and state are synonyms, although country will tend to refer a little more to the geographic and social aspects while state will refer a little more to the political and government aspects.
State will generally be used to refer to the government of the country.
The UK is an odd case, both a state and a country, but comprised of four distinct countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.)
Submission to authority
The cornerstone of any social order is the submission to the authority of the government by all members of society. In exchange, government agrees to recognize the rights of the individual members of society and provide them with a variety of services, including security.
Without a solid agreement to submit to the authority of government, there can be no durable social order. The flip side is that there can be no durable social order without a palpable recognition and respect of the rights of all individuals, a sufficient level of services, and a sufficient sense of security.
Rule of law
In opposition to tyranny, the rule of law requires that government act in accordance with laws approved by elected representatives of the people rather than by officials and bureaucrats acting on whim.
A primary goal of any social order and its government is to optimize the productive capacity of the group as a whole. In other words, assuring that the vast majority of society are engaged in productive pursuits that maximize the net well-being and peace of mind of the group both as a whole and as individual members of society.
A productive pursuit is any activity that adds value to society, such as:
- Raising children
- Growing, processing, distributing, and preparing food
- Creating goods
- Providing services
- Educating and training members of society
- Administering government
- Providing national defense and law enforcement
- Providing diversions (e.g., entertainment and arts) that enhance or facilitate productive pursuits
The government has no direct role per se in optimizing productive pursuits, other than national defense and some government-provided services, but may indirectly do so through mechanisms such as:
- Educational grants
- Research grants
- Tax subsidies
- Government contracts
- Infrastructure advocacy and investment
The primary role of government in productive pursuits is to stay out of the way of private sector efforts, but the government also has the role of stepping in when great difficulties or shortfalls arise that the private sector is not prepared to adequately handle.
Government is essentially the embodiment of the general consensus of the social contract for the country. It may not be formally discussed in that way, but the net sum of all of the effort that goes into defining government is effectively defining the social contract as well.
The social contract includes both the abstract framework for government as described in this paper, coupled with the fine details of roles as outlined above, although the full detail of the social contract is mostly implied and a work in progress subject to constant revision as society itself evolves.
Social agreement on governance
There is not necessarily an ideal form of government for all societies. Many forms have been tried throughout human history. The current form of government used in modern, western-style societies evolved dramatically over the past 250 years, but based in part on elements developed 2,500 years ago and earlier. Assent on the form of governance is a two-step process, first with the people as individuals assenting to local leaders they can trust, who then come together at a regional or national level to agree upon a form of government that they can trust. Assent remains ultimately with the people, but mindful that some form of elite leadership is needed to implement the will of the people.
Formal agreement on governance
Discussions and debate result in informal agreement on the governance to be used by a country. Once settled informally, a formal recognition of the agreed form of governance is needed. A constitution is the normal method for doing this.
A constitution is the formal document that explicitly expresses the principles, structure, and processes upon which the state will exist and operate. It is effectively the social contract for the state,, or at least its foundation.
The U.S. Constitution evolved in five stages:
- Declaration of Independence — the justification for the new country.
- Articles of Confederation — an initial but too-weak effort to bind the former colonies together.
- Federalist papers — public debate about the nature of the federal government.
- U.S. Constitution — preliminary result of those debates.
- Bill of Rights — initial supplement that clarified the extent to which government was to refrain from interference with the lives of the people.
- Amendments — a long, never-ending sequences of adjustments, some correcting existing flaws and some reflecting changing circumstances and sentiment.
A fair fraction of the overall structure of government is in fact specified in the constitution. Granted, many details are left to the branches of government themselves, but enough of the basics are provided to give the process of forming and maintaining the government a head start.
A limited government is generally one whose powers are limited to those enumerated within the constitution for that government. The intent of this doctrine of enumerated powers is that the people retain all powers and rights not explicitly enumerated for government in the constitution.
As a general principle that is fine, but there are ongoing disputes as to how to interpret the powers that are in fact enumerated, such as how strictly or broadly and whether tangentially-related powers or other powers are implied.
The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution is a good example of a power that invites a very broad interpretation since commerce covers a very broad range of activities.
Each of the states in the United States remains sovereign and has its own government. As such, each state declares its own principles, structure, and processes in its own state constitution.
Rights are very important to the people, business, and all nongovernmental organizations, and although they are a core component of the framework of the country, they are not part of government per se. The intent is that government recognize and respects rights, but that the rights exist even absent the government, as natural rights.
There are three categories of rights:
- Unalienable or natural rights presumed to exist for all people, completely independent of government.
- Constitutional rights — specifically enumerated by the U.S. Constitution.
- Civil rights — specifically enumerated by statutory law.
Government’s primary role with respect to rights is to respect them as well as to protect them.
Values, government as culture
Values are generally more a function of the overall society, but since government is a component of society it is natural that at least some commonly shared values would be incorporated into the culture of government itself.
Not all values are shared by all individuals or groups in society, so it is a tricky business to focus on only the near-universally shared values for government itself.
A deeper discussion of values is left to the paper on the elements of society, but the values shared and revered within government include:
- Unalienable, natural rights including life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness
- Constitutional rights in general
- Equality — before the law, opportunity
- Integrity and freedom from corruption
- Loyalty, obedience
- Bearing responsibility and behaving responsibly
- Duty to serve the people
Granted, not every hack politician or self-entitled bureaucrat practices or even believes in all of these values and obligations, but at least the obligation is known and the people are within their rights to demand that those in power in their government adhere to these values.
Natural rights, also known as unalienable rights in the U.S. Declaration of Independence are those rights that are presumed to exist for all individuals, even before government enters the picture. These are rights not because they are granted by government, but regardless of government.
As the Declaration says, these include Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (usually and traditionally inferred as a reference to property.) In addition, the Declaration uses the language “among these are”, indicating that our natural rights are even more extensive than those three.
The paper on Elements of Society offers more detail on natural rights.
The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights specifically enumerates rights of individuals, both as individuals and acting in concert with other individuals.
The point of the Bill of Rights is not to specifically enumerate all natural rights, but to emphasize aspects of rights that had been problematic in the decades and centuries before the American Revolution.
Civil rights are those rights which are specifically recognized and granted by government through statutory law. Some may argue that they are natural rights as well, but the point is that legislation specifically highlights certain rights that had been problematic in certain regions of the country and certain segments of society.
Technically, rights granted or recognized by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights can be considered as civil rights, but generally the term is used to describe the specific rights recognized or emphasized in legislation of the 1960’s by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of that period, including:
- Right to vote and making it easier or even possible to register to vote
- Nondiscriminatory public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, theaters, stores, etc.
- Nondiscrimination for employment
- Nondiscrimination for education
International organizations and international law recognize rights possessed by all individuals simply as a matter of them being human beings, regardless of what local or national governments they may be subject to or what rights those governments may grant or acknowledge.
The United Nations has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to recognize the human rights possessed by everyone due simply to their birth as human beings.
Generally speaking, western democracies are in comport with the UN concept of human rights. It is only when speaking of dysfunctional, totalitarian, repressive regimes that one needs to resort to the UN model of human rights. Normally, it is sufficient to refer simply to rights, constitutional rights, and civil rights for modern, western-style democracies.
That is the case in theory, but in practice a whole host of infringements of human rights occurs on a frequent basis even in the the most modern of western democracies, certainly not to the level of occurrence in repressive regimes, but enough to be noteworthy, problematic, an in need of attention and additional progress.
Most governments recognize the rights of individuals to acquire and possess property. The main forms of property being:
- Real estate — land, buildings
- Personal possessions
- Securities — stocks and bonds
- Intellectual property
Property rights are generally considered a natural or human right, rather than a right that must be conferred by a government. The U.S. Declaration of Independence reference to the pursuit of Happiness is generally considered a reference to property rights.
Intellectual property rights are a bit more fluid and in a state of flux.
Legal contracts can also be considered property rights in the sense that they entitle the holder to specified rights in return for specified inducements.
Government assures protection of intellectual property rights, including:
- Trade secret
Slavery is also a form of property right.
Chattel slavery, the legal right of ownership of humans as slaves is now illegal in all countries, but lingering effects of its impact continue to reverberate throughout society and are likely to do so for some time to come.
Non-chattel slavery, with no legal right of ownership of humans as slaves as property per se, but with individuals held under threat of force or other involuntary inducement, effectively as slaves, remains around the world, most commonly as human trafficking and various forms of servitude which effectively treat human beings as if they were property even thought there is no legal recognition of property rights per se.
Individuals who are in economic distress are frequently placed in work environments, such as homes, where they are theoretically simply workers, but are effectively treated as slaves, property, with essentially no rights.
The legality of such situations is dubious but gray enough that it frequently skirts the law.
Individuals are sometimes kidnapped, bought, or tricked into situations where they are removed from the environment that they know and feel comfortable and involuntarily transported (or tricked into voluntary compliance for transport) to another environment where they are completely dependent on the trafficker for all basic human needs.
Most commonly, they are forced into prostitution.
Infringement of rights
Regardless of rights that people possess, it is always possible that individuals, groups, or government itself might fail to fully respect those rights. Processes are in place to prevent and compensate for any such infringement, but even those processes are subject to failure.
Institutional infringement of rights can occur during times of war or other great national, regional, or local stress, especially as authorities seek to maintain and restore order. These tend to be temporary in nature, but some stressors, such as rampant terrorism, can result in various infringements of rights that are more than merely temporary.
Conflict of rights
Although a malevolent infringement of the rights of others is unacceptable and typically illegal, it is very possible for a completely benevolent exercise of rights to conflict with the rights of others. Society must have robust protection and enforcement mechanisms for such conflicts to avoid disharmony. But, there may be situations where the benevolent exercise of a right cannot be achieved without a conflict, which requires that the members of society exercise some degree of care and understanding to resolve the conflict amicably. In some cases, law enforcement may be required or parties may resort to the civil courts.
Limits of rights
Except for basic biological rights such as water, food, breathing, shelter, and sleep, no right is absolute. There are practical and social limits to rights. The two main limits to rights are to refrain from infringing on the rights of others and to preserve order in society, as well as to preserve society itself.
There is the practical problem that the limits to rights are not bright lines that are always easy to readily discern. Limits tend to be gray areas requiring judgment and discretion, not all of which will be respected by all members of society.
Society must provide education and information to help people, groups, and organizations to understand the basis for any limits to rights, so that these limits can be respected and without resentment that one’s rights are not being infringed by these limits.
America is supposed to be a classless society, but a variety of forms of discrimination have dogged the country from the beginning, and unfortunately, people are not always treated fairly in society, suffering from a variety of categories of discrimination, such as:
- National origin
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Religious beliefs
- Political beliefs
- Childbearing status
Most of these categories of discrimination are illegal in most situations, but not all and not all of the time in all places, and many can be difficult to prove in a court of law. It is an ongoing struggle for society to ban discrimination and in fact effectively enforce such bans.
This task is made doubly difficult by the fact that conflicts can occur, such as religious or political beliefs that conflict with particular discrimination categories.
To some extent, discrimination is a value judgment about what constitute valid criteria for a given activity — or at least perceptions of what constitute valid criteria or how those criteria can legitimately be applied, and perceptions vary between regions of the country and segments of society, and evolve over the passage of time.
The goal is to eliminate all forms of discrimination, eventually, but that task depends on progress in the evolution of perceptions.
Moral values are somewhat subjective and generally of interest more for society as a whole, namely individuals and their families, rather than government.
Some moral values do indeed find themselves incorporated into the values or culture of government, and even into laws themselves, but they are limited to the subset of morality which is fairly widely commonly accepted throughout all segments and strata of society, and will tend to be significantly more objective and less subject to personal choice on the part of the individual.
Telling the truth is recognized as an essential value at all levels of society, but veracity is also recognized as a problem at all levels of society. And many truths are quite subjective so that one person or group’s truth is another person or group’s lie.
Transparency is a great tool for encouraging and assuring honesty, although in truth it is simply a crutch to help government cope with the problematic nature of human honesty.
The people themselves are the best check on honesty, choosing candidates that they believe have the values that they see are important in each elective office. Generally, nobody wants a representative or leader who habitually lies to them.
Dishonesty in government has a variety of causes:
- Character flaws in the individual official
- Corruption and conspiracy
- Political expediency
- Concern that the people may not understand or accept the actual truth
- Distrust or disdain for the people
- Desire to shield the people from some ugly truth
- Desire to maintain public calm and order in the face of some unsettling truth, event, or threat
One of the primary functions of government is to free society from the debilitating effects of power struggles, providing a level of stability and continuity that allows people to more comfortably live their daily lives so that they don’t have to wake up each day wondering who is in charge, what the new rules are, and what might be expected of them today that wasn’t yesterday.
Granted, political campaigns and elections are indeed power struggles, as is the legislative process, the administration of the executive branch, and operation of the courts, but the system is designed with enough robust process, rules, and mediation (e.g., courts, judges, appeals) that at least the system has some semblance of stability and rationality compared to traditional power struggles that had no such constraints.
Technically, a nation is more of a cultural rather than a political or geographic concept that can exist independently of formal country boundaries and formal government, but the general goal, and the reality for the U.S., is for the country and nation to be synonymous.
That said, there are strong enough cultural divides in the U.S. that it is plausible to consider the U.S. to be a divided nation, although still a single, unified country and state.
Still, for the purposes here, nation, country, and state can be treated as synonyms for a fully functional nation. Granted, dysfunction can render this unity problematic, which is one of the ways that civil society seeks to help to cope with such dysfunction.
Generally, country and nation will be synonyms for all aspects of culture and society in addition to government, while state will tend to be limited to government.
Overall structure of society
A separate paper on Elements of Society will focus on society of a country overall, but a simplified model of society has these elements:
- Individuals, citizens
- Business, industry, and commerce, collectively the economy
- Organized religion
- Media, the press
- Non-governmental organizations
A slightly more simplified model is commonly used:
- Business or the private sector
- Civil society
That model keeps the people and their local communities outside of the framework, but focuses on the essential interplay with government at an organizational level.
Democracy and capitalism
It is difficult to cleanly separate the political domain from the economic domain since in practice they are somewhat intertwined.
At a simplistic level, democracy is all about politics and capitalism is all about economics and business.
Traditionally economic systems are framed in terms of property and production, with three main economic systems:
- Capitalism — both property and the means of production are privately owned.
- Socialism — property remains privately owned but production is publicly owned.
- Communism — both property and production are publicly, commonly owned, by the state.
In practice there are no pure capitalist systems — some property is publicly owned and some degree of services are owned or produced by the government.
Modern, western-style governments tend to be republics or representative democracies.
Many individuals with backgrounds or connections to business participate in government as elected representatives.
The focus of western-style democracy is that the people get to vote for their representatives and leaders, but the majority of the best candidates tend to have a business or capitalist leaning or outlook.
True populists, free of any ties to business or other large organizations, are quite rare. And even if they do get elected, they tend to not get very far unless they start showing a healthy respect for the business sector of society, if for no other reason than that so many of their voters have jobs working for businesses.
Also, much of government operations comes from or is heavily supported by private-sector vendors and suppliers.
In short, trying to fully separate capitalism or business from democracy or government in modern, western-style political systems is not practical.
Public sector and private sector
A lot of discussions about government and its role in society revolve around the simple binary division of the public sector and the private sector, with the former representing government, and the latter representing everything outside government, including the people and all nongovernmental organizations, but commonly using the term private sector as a synonym for commercial, for-profit, business.
Levels of government
Although the main focus here is national government, it is worth noting that it is the total governing structure or overlapping structures of the state or country as a whole that matter. Exactly how the various elements of government are parceled out is less important, at least in terms of our goal here, which is to discuss the elements of government (regardless of where or how they are implemented), particularly as they may relate to a discussion of civil society.
The levels (at least in America):
- National or federal government
- State governments — the geopolitical divisions within the country
- Local governments, both town, city, and regional (e.g., county) as well
There is the additional level of international law and relations between countries. In some ways international law should be considered above national law, but there is no true international sovereign, not even the United Nations, so the sovereignty of each country is the effective controlling force from a legal perspective. It may not seem right, but each country decides for itself what aspects of international law it will obey.
The United Nations is a great opportunity for countries to come together to discuss important issues that transcend country boundaries, and even to agree to cooperate if there is sufficient consensus, but the UN is not a world government. It facilitates cooperation, but cannot enforce compliance, although individual member countries can singly or in concert act to enforce UN resolutions.
Some practical issues cannot be resolved or controlled within national borders and require either cooperation between countries or unilateral action that may not be seen as strictly friendly or legal by some other country, such as:
- Drug trafficking
- Sex and slave trafficking
- Smuggling of goods
- Intellectual property theft
- Data transmission and storage
Individual countries can themselves agree to act in concert, known as a coalition, when agreement can be reached in the United Nations, and their actions can be under the color of a UN resolution, but ultimately they are individual countries acting under their own national, sovereign authority.
Participation in a coalition is strictly voluntary and there is no legal recourse should a participant later choose to drop out of the coalition.
Short of outright coalitions, the moral support of other countries can prove invaluable, both at the international level with other nations, and within the country to comfort people that the nation is not going it alone.
The U.S. Constitution takes the approach of declaring that only a relatively few powers are reserved for the national, federal government, and that all other powers are reserved for the individual states of the union, or to the people themselves.
The intent is to make it clear that the federal government does not constitute an all-powerful monarchy or dictatorship, and that the individual states are the primary locus of political power in the country.
Expansion of powers
Granted, it can certainly seem that the federal government is much more powerful, with nuclear weapons, bombers, aircraft carriers, armies, and the Internal Revenue Service, among many other elements of power, but if the states have indeed ceded powers to the federal government, it is by their choice and acquiescence, not constitutional limitation.
The cumulative effects of a civil war, rapid expansion westward, rapid population growth, economic turmoil in the late 19th century and the 1930’s, two world wars, the cold war, civil rights reform, escalation of terrorism and drug trafficking, and rapid advances in technology and medicine have taxed the states and effectively expanded those early, minimalist enumerated powers, but there still remain at least significant vestiges of a separation of powers between the federal and state governments.
Exactly where the lines between these levels of government really are has been subject to change and will continue to evolve. There is no clear, settled, and widely agreed upon boundary and one of the large problems confronting the nation is this dispute about separation of powers.
Cooperation between governments
No government can operate completely on its own — governments and levels of governments tend to cooperate to some degree. Some of the common forms of cooperation:
- Inter-national cooperation, such as treaties and bilateral and multilateral agreements and organizations, work at the United Nations, and coalitions.
- National-state cooperation, such as grants, including welfare grants, constitutionally-recognized divisions, memorandums of understanding, harmonizing laws, and constitutions that overlap.
- Inter-state cooperation, typically at the regional level, especially on transportation, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
- State-local and national-local cooperation, including grants, agreements on jurisdictions.
- Local-local cooperation, between adjacent towns and cities or those within a region that share concerns.
There is an old saying in Washington that ultimately all politics is local, meaning that even the grandest and highest levels of national and international governance ultimately reach back and touch individuals back in their local communities.
The grandest of government operations are funded from tax revenue that was collected from individual workers working in their local communities.
Laws may directly affect only large businesses or other large organizations, but they in turn employ workers in their local communities.
Laws may directly affect only foreign governments or foreign firms, but they in turn may import products or services produced by workers in their local communities.
And every two years the people, living, working, and voting in their local communities must decide who to elect or reelect to Congress or the presidency. And as grand as national and international issues may be in their voting calculations, ultimately these voters will be asking themselves how these elected representatives and leaders in Washington will be affecting them in their local communities.
National country governments can cooperate in a number of ways:
- United Nations
- Bilateral agreements, between two countries
- Multilateral agreements, between multiple countries
- Conferences of experts from countries coming together on shared interests, such as science, technology, social problems, economics, finance, and regulation
- Coalitions, including joint military action
Institutions are organizational structures that perform some function for society and persist indefinitely, such as:
- Society as a whole
- The three branches of government
- The White House
- The cabinet departments
- Federal agencies
- The House of Representatives
- The Senate
- The Supreme Court
- The military services
- Free and open markets
- The people
- The banking system
Every piece of government that performs some valuable service that the public depends on is an institution.
Institutions are foundations upon which every member of society can build their lives.
Government itself also has need for institutions that are internal to government and not normally accessible by the general public, the institutions needed to support the government and protect its integrity.
Functional Elements of government
Now, let’s finally dive down to some of the detail of the specific functional elements of government. Generally, the three main major branches of any government, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, are great categories, but hide the specific functional elements that real people and civil society actually care about.
Each country will have one or more national leaders, one of whom is the head of state, and one of whom is the head of government. These are two distinct roles, which may be performed by two separate individuals or both roles may be played by the same individual. There may be additional national leadership roles other than these two in some cases.
The head of state is the official or ceremonial leader while the head of government actually runs the show.
In the U.S., the president serves both roles as the head of state and head of government. In Germany, the president is head of state while the chancellor is the head of government. In the UK, the king or queen is the head of state while the prime minister is the head of government.
Head of state
The head of state will tend to be more of an official and ceremonial role, typically reserved as a separate role from head of government for a monarchy such as in a constitutional or parliamentary monarchy.
Some republics still maintain distinct positions for head of state and head of government, while some republics, such as the U.S. invest both roles in the same position and individual.
Head of government
The head of government is the individual actually responsible for organizing and executing the functions of government for a country, as well as representing the country when negotiating with other countries. They are the true captain of the ship. If there is a distinct head of state they are the admiral while the captain still controls and runs the ship.
For countries which have a prime minister or chancellor, the prime minister or chancellor is the head of government, otherwise the president will be the head of government. There are always exceptions to this general rule.
Elements of the executive branch
- Supreme leader or chief executive — whether president, king, prime minister, chancellor, dictator or whatever, this is the captain of the ship who publicly and privately represents the state as a whole in terms of organizing and executing the executive functions of government, including negotiations with other countries.
- Policy development — staff present the chief executive with options and turn executive decisions into specific policies and regulations.
- Administration — the bureaucrats who actually execute policy and present the public face that citizens and other individuals interact with. This includes all of the cabinet level departments and agencies.
- Operations — activities that directly impact society, including the economy, businesses, and individuals, such as air traffic control, operations of government-controlled infrastructure, safety inspections, weather service, border control, immigration, customs, Federal Reserve bank payment systems, postal service, social security, and health care exchanges.
- Standards — creating and promulgating standards of measurement to facilitate commerce and government operations as well.
- Research — government laboratories as well as research grants to non-government research facilities, including DARPA, NSF, CDC, NIST, NIH, and SBIR.
- Promotion and advocacy — government has a role in promoting, encouraging, and advocating for a vibrant and inclusive economy, affordable housing, economical and safe transportation, quality and safe health care, safe and economical food and drugs, free and fair trade, and educational opportunities, among other objectives of national policy.
- Competition — encouraging and assuring a free, open, and competitive market for commerce, as well as intervening on market failures, such as antitrust.
- Subsidy — in response to market failures or to jump-start new markets, the government may directly fund operations of non-government entities.
- Communications with the public — press conferences, press releases, fact sheets, direct media contact, and outreach and to respond to questions from the public, business, and organizations, to communicate policies and procedures, and reactions to events, sometimes for political damage control or at least to fend off political attacks.
- Regulations and administrative law — law-like policies that the executive controls through policy development and administration.
- Regulatory enforcement — similar to law enforcement but for regulations (e.g., OSHA, NRC, FCC, FAA.)
- Law enforcement — national policing, such as the FBI, ATF, DEA, but focused on statutory laws enacted by Congress that are embodied in the United States Code (USC.)
- Protection — deter and defend high-value individuals, such as government officials and dignitaries, and government facilities from assault, abduction, and attack.
- Prosecution — the Department of Justice is responsible not for enforcing laws, but for judging whether to prosecute alleged criminal and civil offenses that have been detected by law enforcement.
- Incarceration/Corrections of convicted federal offenders.
- Defense — the military services tasked with physical protection of the country as a whole — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.
- Commander in Chief — same as the chief executive, but it is the role that matters, focused on physical security of the country rather than on common day-to-day needs of the populace.
- Intelligence — gathering of security-related information needed by the chief executive for security and defense issues.
- Security — loosely includes defense as well, but focuses also on non-invasive threats (no armies or ships or aircraft in the sky), including terrorism, organized crime, drug and human trafficking, as well as border control, immigration, and customs.
- Covert operations — defense and security military or para-military actions which are undertaken without publicity and even denied publicly.
- Foreign policy and foreign relations — how the country interacts with other countries at all levels, government, business, nongovernmental organizations, and individual citizens, both to facilitate day to day activities as well as to pursue national strategic objectives, including treaties, international organizations and agreements, as well as basic diplomatic affairs, and to collaborate with and support defense and security matters.
- Service Agencies — these are quasi-independent agencies of the government that are only loosely under control of the chief executive, each focused on a specific category of public service, such as Social Security Administration, FAA, FCC, SEC, NASA, NRC, CIA, NSA. Some of these are strictly independent, while others technically do report to cabinet level agencies. In some cases the only control of the chief executive is on appointment of commissioners, but moral suasion is always available as an indirect form of influence if not virtual control (who will turn down a call from the President?).
- Infrastructure — although a lot of infrastructure spending and control for transportation, communications, power and energy, water, and sanitation happens at the state and local levels and in the private sector, some is directly controlled or at least nominally under the auspices of the chief executive. This includes the interstate highway system, Amtrak, TVA, and Bonneville Power Administration. At the inter-state level, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a great example of government involvement and control of infrastructure. The Departments of Energy and Transportation, FCC, and FAA are examples of government involvement in infrastructure as well.
- Safety — to promote and assure a level of safety from everyday and product hazards that individuals and organizations are unable to achieve on their own.
- Emergency response — including the ability to call up the national guard for disasters, as well as FEMA, and the Coast Guard, and even the FBI.
Executive departments and agencies
The executive branch is organized as a number of departments and independent agencies.
The heads of the executive-level departments, the federal executive departments, and the heads of a couple of the independent executive agencies as well as a few other high-level officials, as well as the Vice President constitute the President’s cabinet, whose function is to advise the president on whatever matters he may seek advice.
Very few of the independent executive agencies are in the cabinet — only the EPA and SBA.
Also missing from the cabinet are the National Security Adviser and the Director of National Intelligence, to whom the CIA reports.
Senior White House Leadership
The President has the authority to tell a lot of people what to do, but has only a very small direct staff, known as senior White House leadership, consisting of:
- Chief of Staff
- Deputy Chiefs of Staff (currently 2)
- Senior Advisers (currently 3)
Executive Office of the President
Beyond the Senior White House Leadership, lies a vast bureaucracy called the Executive Office of the President which is overseen by the White House Chief of Staff and houses many of the individuals and groups that advise and assist the President, including the Office of Administration, as well as:
- Council of Economic Advisers
- Council on Environmental Quality
- National Security Council
- Office of Administration
- Office of Management and Budget
- Office of National Drug Control Policy
- Office of Science and Technology Policy
- Office of the United States Trade Representative
- Office of the Vice President
Relative autonomy of departments and agencies
Cabinet-level departments, known as federal executive departments, report directly to the president and answer to his command, but operate with relative autonomy on a day to day basis and in general. Each department is like a separate ship with its own captain, with the president acting as admiral of the entire fleet.
Non-cabinet agencies operate with even greater autonomy. As with cabinet-level departments, they are constitutionally part of the executive branch and their leadership is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, but otherwise they are independent of executive control so that there is no direct command relationship as there is with cabinet-level departments.
A major function of government is to provide essential services to the public. Generally these will be services that are not easily or readily provided by the private sector.
Whether an essential service should be provided by government or the private sector can be a very gray area and subject to much dispute. In some cases there may be overlap, with the private sector providing some aspects of a service and government filling the gaps.
In some cases it may be a matter of market failure, where the private sector had been providing the service, but financial difficulties or legal problems may have prevented the private sector from providing an economically sustainable service.
Times change, so the line between public and private sector can shift over time. In some cases what had been a government service may now make more sense if privatized. And vice versa.
If services are the public face for government, policy is the brain, the thinking that decides and guides services. Policy is the blueprint and plan for how the conceptual services of government are actually implemented and delivered.
Policy has five factors guiding it:
- Policy must achieve the goals established within government, as legislated by Congress or mandated by the executive branch.
- Policy must be palatable to the people, lest they rebel.
- Policy must be responsive to the needs and interests of the people, expressed and implied.
- Policy must have political support within the government, including Congress.
- Policy must fit within the overall financial budget of the government.
Incentives and subsidies
Advocacy alone may not be sufficient to sway enough citizens in favor of a decision or path. Financial incentives or subsidies may be required, typically in the form of a credit on income tax.
Incentives can be used for both individuals and businesses.
Government is frequently called upon to provide financial assistance to individuals, families, groups, and communities in situations where it is deemed not possible for the recipients to sufficiently provide for their own well-being due to a variety of economic and social conditions.
Common forms of aid include:
- Cash for food
- Housing subsidy
- Educational aid
- Health care
Elements of the legislative branch
- The legislature — the bodies that actual pass laws or changes to the legal code.
- Chamber leadership — each of the two chambers, House and Senate, elects and appoints a variety of leaders, with each party having their own leaders.
- Committees — the totality of the business conducted by each chamber of the legislature is parceled out to a multiplicity of independent committees, each handling a functional and related subset of the total business. Committees tend also have subcommittees to parcel out more focused subsets of the business. Each committee has leadership, members, and staff.
- Committee leadership — each congressional committee and subcommittee has a chairperson who belongs to he majority party of the chamber (Senate or House) as well as a Ranking Member who belongs to the minority party of the chamber. Committee leaders are appointed by chamber leadership for each party from members of the committee, commonly based on seniority.
- Committee members — elected members of each chamber are appointed to one or more committees or subcommittees based on their interests. The majority party has more members on each committee, assuring that the committee will likely vote along the same party lines as for the full chamber.
- Committee staff — these unelected professionals are the ones actually drafting legislation and fully responsible for contriving the fine details of legislation. They are hired by and report to the Chief of Staff for the committee, themselves a hired, not elected, professional and are in addition to the elected legislators who are appointed members of the committee or subcommittee. The majority party and minority party each have their own committee staff, the majority Chief of Staff controlled by the committee chairperson and the minority Chief of Staff controlled by the minority or Ranking Member of the committee. The majority party has a larger budget for committee staff.
- Member staff — these unelected professionals are responsible for guiding the elected members of Congress on how to vote on so much of the arcane legislation that is required even for seemingly simple tasks, as well as assisting constituents who are struggling with government in some way, and handling arrangements for public appearances and special meetings with individuals and groups with whom the member has some sort of special relationship, including major campaign donors. They are hired by and report to the member’s Chief of Staff, who themselves are a professional hired by and reporting to the elected member. More senior members and leadership will have larger staffs and budgets.
- The law — once passed, laws have a life of their own, independent of what happens to the legislators who passed them or even whether the current legislature approves of them.
- The legislative process — the mechanism by which laws are created, codified, changed, and possibly repealed. This includes congressional hearings, the congressional record, and other opportunities for entities outside of government to be aware of and participate in the legislative process.
Granted, all power in a modern, western-style democracy ultimately devolves from the people, but implicit in the concept of a representative democracy is that the people are too busy with their daily lives to deal with the minutiae and complexity of government.
Government also requires a level of knowledge and skill that is beyond all but a small fraction of the general populace.
The result is that modern, western-style government requires a cadre of elite individuals to grasp and cope with the minutiae and complexity of government.
Overall, government is primarily designed as a meritocracy, with individuals chosen for their ability to tackle the tasks at hand.
Individual politicians or appointees may have gotten their position based on factors other than technical merit, but some amount of that is workable provided that the overall tendency is towards merit. At least that’s the theory. In practice, a fair amount of mediocrity and power-grabbing is par for the course, even in the best of modern, western-style democracies.
The Congress of the United States was designed to simultaneously give a nod to both the elites and the people, with the Senate designed to be more suited for the elites and the House of Representatives more representative on more normal people. In fact, originally, U.S. senators were appointed by their state legislators. It wasn’t until 1913 that the 17th Amendment authorized direct election of Senators by the people, whereas Representatives has always been elected by the people.
It could be that by 1913 many more average Americans had sufficient free time that did not need to be dedicated to working to support themselves and their families that they could reasonably be expected to expend the effort to evaluate the qualifications of candidates for the Senate. Nonetheless, the Senate remains the more elite body in Congress.
Ask your congressman
Individuals are always free to request assistance from their elected representatives for navigating the complex structure of government.
Sometimes that includes assistance with how to work with a bureaucratic process of some government agency. Sometimes that includes simply pointing constituents in the right direction to get started.
Laws passed by Congress are referred to as statutory law, also known as statute law. A single provision of the law may be referred to as a statute.
United States Code
Statutory law, laws passed by Congress, are collected into what is known as the United States Code (U.S.C.), which is organized into a hierarchy of levels:
Bills, acts, and laws
Congress doesn’t vote on laws per se. Legislation is in the form of a bill, which is a narrative on the purpose of the bill or law, coupled with instructions for how to revise the United States Code to have the effect of creating the intended law. A single bill may in fact create or revise more than one portion of the code.
A bill is also known as an act. Each bill is also referred to as a resolution and has a resolution number, with different numbers for the two chambers. Each act may also have a name, which usually ends with the word Act, which is how the resolution tends to be referred to with the public. The act name also tends to include the year of enactment, which becomes important if the same basic act is revised in subsequent years.
In order to be enacted, legislation must be approved by both chambers of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each chamber has its own version of the same bill, each with its own resolution and resolution number, one being a House Resolution or H.R. for the House of Representatives and the other being a Senate Resolution or S.R.
If there is no real dispute between the two chambers on a given bill, one chamber may simply adopt the resolution of the other as if it were their own, but with their own sponsors and cosponsors.
Once both chambers of Congress have approved their corresponding resolutions, any remaining inconsistencies are resolved by convening a conference committee to come up with a single, joint resolution, which can then be sent to the president for his signature — or veto.
The president can indeed say no to a bill approved by Congress. Members of Congress must then decide whether they have the energy and votes to override the veto.
Sometimes bills are passed simply as symbolic gestures, simply to force the president to acknowledge that he is in opposition to to a measure or position.
And sometimes a bill is written in a way to force a veto that the sponsors know they can override, once again to try to paint the president in a corner as being opposed to some measure or position that the sponsors feel is politically advantageous to themselves.
Passing legislation is really hard work. It doesn’t just happen because somebody has a good idea. It requires a champion, known as a sponsor, who is a member of Congress, either a congressman or a senator. It also requires a lot of support, supporters known as co-sponsors, also members of Congress. The original sponsor and all co-sponsors are collectively known as the sponsors.
Not every member of Congress is interested in all aspects of government. They each tend to have areas of special interest or even actual expertise. Members participate in their areas of interest by way of committees. Each committee has a charter or area of interest or responsibility.
There is not a strict one to one relationship with each executive department or agency. A single committee may cover more than one department or agency, and a single department or agency may be covered by more than one committee.
Committees also tend to have subcommittees for more specialized areas of interest in their overall area of interest.
Committees have three main responsibilities:
- Drafting and approval of legislation in their area of responsibility.
- Oversight of the departments and agencies within their area of responsibility.
- Investigation into issues related to their area of responsibility
Members of Congress may have a strong interest in some area, but they hardly have the time or energy or resources to delve as deeply as is required in our complex world, society, and government. This is where committee staff come in.
Each side (party) has staff on each committee, but with the majority party selecting a majority of the staff and the minority party selecting only a minority of the staff.
Although selection of committee staff does indeed have a political component, technical expertise in the subject matter of interest to the committee is still required.
Each member of Congress has their own office staff who may also cover areas of interest to their member, but this would be in addition to the specialized responsibility of committee staff.
Congressional hearings are a very mixed bag. They can certainly be an opportunity for an exchange of views on an issue or proposed legislation, but sometimes become ideologically-charged partisan witch hunts.
In addition to specific issues and legislation, hearings are also held for senior executive political appointments, treaties, investigations, and appointment of generals and admirals in the military services.
Hearings on the budget for the government typically consume a fair amount of every committee’s time. Part of that time focuses on the purpose of each expenditure, while the rest focuses on the amount of each expenditure.
Some hearings are televised and quite a show. Others are not televised and garner little attention. Some have long lines of members of the public waiting to attend, while others are hardly attended at all.
Some are quite formal and somber, while some quite casual and even jovial.
Some focus on getting all sides of all of the facts laid out for all to see, while others are pure political theater.
Some are neutral and nonpartisan, while some are clearly one-sided.
Congressional hearing witnesses
Congressional hearings usually involve a series of voluntary witnesses, each anxious to present their side of the story for the matter at hand. Even the most prestigious experts (and celebrities as well) vie for such opportunities for exposure to influence such weighty matters.
Officials from executive agencies are commonly called to appear as witnesses. Business executives as well. These two categories of witness are usually called because they can testify directly to the facts of the matter under discussion.
Expert witnesses are called for their advisory expertise rather than specific knowledge of the facts of the matter under discussion.
Most witnesses are fairly benign and are merely speaking for one side of the matter or the other, more as a matter of fact than to stake out a clear partisan posture. In most cases even members of an opposing ideology are fairly deferential and respectful, even as they do try to trip up the witness — with a smile on their face.
But some witness are treated in a distinctly hostile manner by one side, while the other side treats that same witness with deference, respect, and a degree of friendliness.
Witness testimony typically involves a prepared written statement which may or may not be read in its entirety or merely summarized, typically followed by questions from the committee chair and members, typically to highlight the preferred partisan positions of the respective sides.
Sometimes the most appropriate witnesses for a matter under congressional review are very unwilling to appear before the requesting committee. In such situations the committee can issue a subpoena which legally compels the witness to appear before the committee.
Sometimes the subpoena is merely a formality since the witness simply wishes to appear to be appearing before the committee under pressure so as not to be seen as agreeing with the agenda of the party which called the hearing.
In other cases the reluctant witness has no intention of cooperating at all. They will either give a merely perfunctory reply to each question to satisfy the minimal legal requirement for their appearance, or they may invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and refrain from answering some or all questions on the basis that they cannot be compelled to make self-incriminating statements.
Who writes the laws?
Congressmen and senators rarely write laws themselves. Drafting of legislation is delegated to committee staff, who are professional employees of the most relevant committees who have expertise in drafting legislation and consult with subject matter experts for any needed technical details.
On occasion, outside interests may submit draft language to be included in the legislation. Sometimes committee staff welcomes the offloading of burden, but sometimes this ability to excessively influence legislation is more of a political favor.
Elements shared between the executive and legislature
- The budget — both the executive and the legislature must agree on the budget for any given year (subject to the veto override of the legislature in extreme cases.) Regardless of what the executive and legislature may want and agree on doing, executive agencies will not have money to spend until it has been both authorized and appropriated in the budget.
- Revenue — the legislation can authorize the collection of revenue, such as through taxes, tariffs, and fees, and it is up to the executive administrative agencies to perform that collection, with the IRS being the primary agency for revenue collection.
- Money — commerce and operation of the government requires a stable form of money to enable transactions of goods and services. The Federal Reserve effectively controls the money available in the U.S. The Federal Reserve is chartered by Congress, but the executive controls appointments to the Board of Governors, albeit with consent of Congress required.
Most aspects of government are completely dependent on financial resources, money, and most of that money comes from taxes levied on the people. Some money comes from tariffs and fees, but most comes from taxes, namely income tax.
Taxation is a key element of government, and may be the main element that touches most people where they can sense it the most, their wallets.
Congress levies taxes and in turn the executive branch, through the agency of the Internal Revenue Service, is responsible for collecting those taxes.
The executive branch does have authority to veto legislation that sets or changes taxes and tax rates, but Congress has the ability to override any such veto.
Allocation of resources
Resources, primarily in the form of money from revenues, is allocated via the annual budgeting process in which both the executive and legislative branches participate.
Both the President and Congress have the authority to create independent advisory commissions, typically to pursue policy matters or for the purpose of investigation. These commissions are strictly limited to an investigative and advisory capacity. The can issue recommendations and reports, but they have no legal authority or executive or administrative power, although they may be granted subpoena power to compel testimony.
Congressional commissions tend to be split along party lines, with the congressional leaders of each party appointing half of the commissioners.
Examples of commissions include:
- BP oil spill
- Warren (JFK)
- Social Security
Planning for future activities of government is shared between the executive and legislative branches.
Future activities almost always have a budget component, which Congress and the administration must agree on.
- Vision of what is to be achieved
- Specific objectives
- Strategy for how to achieve those objectives
- How much it will cost
- Who is to pay for it, how, and over what period of time
Once Congress has agreed in principle and provided all of the necessary legislation for any planned activities of government, it is left to the administration to arrange for the implementation of that legislation. Congress will then maintain oversight on both the initial implementation and ongoing operations.
Relevant congressional committees provide oversight for the implementation of activities authorized by legislation. This may include periodic briefings, congressional hearings, and reports. The annual budget cycle is an additional opportunity to examine government activities. On occasion, more formal and thorough investigations may also be performed in response to specific events, issues, or concerns.
Impact of judiciary on the law
In addition to merely enforcing statutory law, courts can effectively make law by creatively interpreting nuances of meaning in both statutory law and the Constitution.
Beyond the literal word of the law as enacted by Congress, each federal circuit court can adopt its own interpretation of the law, and then the Supreme Court may or may not provide its own interpretation of the law on top of the circuit interpretations.
Case law provides a precedent that is intended to be used as a guide for subsequent courts considering cases with the same fact pattern. Generally, they must follow precedent of previous cases, but judges may also find that the fact pattern differs or that circumstances have changed. Each circuit has its own case law unless the Supreme Court has ruled and provided its own interpretation which then becomes case law in all circuits.
Common law is another name for case law, as is stare decisis.
Treaties are a special form of law in the form of agreements between countries, obligating each country to act in a specified manner.
Impact of the executive on the law
Regardless of what Congress intended and how the courts interpret laws, it is up to the executive branch, nominally through the FBI and Department of Justice to actually enforce the law.
Although Congress may create laws which create agencies and mandate regulations, it is the executive branch itself which must create the mandated regulations, which are also known as administrative law, in the form of the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR), which is distinct from the United States Code (U.S.C.)
Decisions vs. actions
Most of the operation of government is composed of a very deliberative process so that the details and consequences of most actions or activities must be carefully considered before a decision can be made formally official and the actual action or activity begun.
Rulemaking for regulations
Although some decisions are effectively executive-level edicts, such as presidential directives, most decisions that have an impact on the public will come in the form of regulations, also known as rules.
The creation or revision to a regulation requires a lengthy public process called rulemaking. A proposed rule must be published in the Federal Register, the public given ample time and forums to respond with feedback, and only after feedback has been addressed can the final rule or regulation be put into force.
Individuals in government will be either:
- Elected officials
- Appointed officials and staff
- Career staff — civil servants
- Members of the armed services
- Contractor staff — employees of businesses performing services to the government under contract
Government has a wide variety of roles within society as a whole. Each role is comprised of some number of discrete activities, either actions that government can take or requirements on the actions of the public. Each such role or activity requires authority on the part of government.
An official is anyone within government who has some form of authority over one or more activities within or outside of government.
Staff have responsibility for some function, but typically have no authority.
Senior officials are officials at the higher levels of government, especially those who oversee the activities of other officials. In some cases a senior official may not oversee other officials and merely provide some particularly special skill of direct interest to the highest levels of government.
In addition to cabinet-level officials and the heads of agencies and members of commissions, senior officials may include:
- Under secretaries
- Assistant secretaries
- Deputy assistant secretaries
Non-senior officials typically have authority to carry out various actions, but not to speak as representatives of their agencies or departments, while senior officials tend not to carry out actions themselves but are able to speak publicly (and privately) as representatives of their agencies or departments.
Although we like to think of a modern democracy as a flat, classless social system with everyone equal and peers without any special status, and that is somewhat true at the level of individuals, citizens, and the electorate, but once we start talking about organizing people for specific purposes, such as government and its agencies, as well as business and even social organizations, hierarchy and pecking order quickly leap to the fore.
A leader is needed. There may be a small board of peers as well, at least loosely led by the nominal leader. The leader has an executive staff, each of whom has subordinates, and so on down the proverbial chain of command.
Of course the military services have a much more rigid hierarchical structure, but even nonmilitary agencies and departments have rather rigid hierarchical organization structures, with org charts filled with boxes and rigid straight lines.
Although the executive branch does indeed perform an executive function, with the President leading the country, its primary and day to day function is primarily administrative in nature. In fact, the executive branch, sometimes known as the White House, is commonly referred to as “the administration.”
Much of what transpires in government has a heavy legal component or involves detailed, law-like rules, so it is no surprise that government involves a lot of lawyers.
The legislative branch of course focuses on law, so lawyers are of course needed, but as noted, drafting of legislation is most commonly performed by committee staff, so although although committees are heavily staffed with lawyers there is no absolute or even preferential requirement for members of Congress to be lawyers. That said, being a lawyer or at least having a strong interest in law is a very beneficial skill in Congress.
Most positions in executive departments, agencies, and even the White House itself have a variety of professional or technical requirements to fulfill, so non-lawyers are common, but once again since law, regulation, and other law-like rules, policies, and procedures are so common in government, it is no surprise that more than a few lawyers are required in most aspects of government.
Each department or agency will have at least a general counsel to guide staff in assuring that they follow the law. For all but the smallest agencies additional legal staff will be required.
There is no single intellectual model for exactly what role a government should play in society, nor for how a given role should be implemented. Each such model constitutes an ideology, a belief system.
There can be many ideologies. In fact, each individual can have their own distinctive ideology, although it usually turns out that a lot of narrower ideologies are simply offshoots of a few basic core ideologies.
Government would not be very effective if each individual pursued their own ideology exclusively. Seeking common cause is a great way to combine energy and efforts to build a much larger power base than the individual. Seeking to identify common, shared values and beliefs is an important and valuable skill both in government and in society in general.
Government may seem at times to be a relatively smoothly running machine (and sometimes not), but that is only a testament to the efficiency of the political process which continually refreshes the pool of officials and staff in government.
The political process is the main mechanism that gives the people a voice in their own governance, both by voting and running for office. Beyond the immediacy of participation in elections, the elected leaders and representatives of the people are an indirect but representative participation of the people in the ongoing administration of government.
Civil society is the other main organized mechanism for influencing government. Nongovernmental organizations focusing on particular interests can add weight to the political process beyond that which occurs at the ballot box.
The main elements of the political process are:
- Free and fair elections
- Elective offices
- Informed citizens
- Political parties
- Political operatives
- Political campaigns
- Campaign finance
- Political speech
A political party can be formed once a critical mass of individuals rally around a common cause.
These individuals comprising a political party are unlikely to share every detail of their respective ideologies, but are able to set aside enough of their differences so that they can as a group rally around their common cause.
Political parties are relatively formal organizations, but of a rather different nature than traditional organizations such as businesses, organized religions, philanthropic organizations and charities, or even sports leagues and teams. Political parties exist solely for the purpose of gaining and keeping power in government.
Political party committee
Each political party is an organization represented by a committee, a political party committee, composed of individuals who created the party or have been chosen by members of the committee. In the U.S., we have the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) as well as other, smaller party committees.
Political action committee (PAC)
In addition to arguing for candidates and issues on their own as individuals, individuals can also form special-purpose committees called political action committees or PACs which can independently raise funds and in turn, as an organization, make campaign donations to individual candidates and engage in collective political speech in favor of various candidates and issues, all at an arms-length from those donating to the PAC.
Each element of government relates to specific organizational functions and tasks, and nominally requires a variety of skills. The nominal skills and activities of actual government have little to do with political skill per se, but political skill is required to accede to positions of power and responsibility in government. In other words, political acumen is required to get elected or appointed by someone who gets elected.
Although the nominal requirements for any position in government do not require political skills per se, successful execution of the responsibilities of each position generally requires a significant degree of political skill. Whether working with Congress or working with other departments and agencies, political skills are essential.
Technically, there is a distinction between electoral political skills and organizational political skills, but they have more in common than not. Both require some degree of persuasion, appeals to emotion, ego or vanity, commonly manipulation, or even outright deception. Sometimes technical skill and marshaling of facts and figures is effective, but oftentimes non-technical factors are more compelling.
Politicians are individuals aspiring to positions of power and responsibility who possess political skills.
Technically, only those who seek elected office would be referred to as politicians, but even those who seek only to be appointed to office are required to muster the same level of political skills. Granted, they may be mere team players rather than leader of the team, but they are on the same team as the team leader going after the elected position. They are every bit as political even if not out in front leading the pack.
An election is simply the process of selecting which individuals will be elected to each available elective office. Granted, there is a lot of logistics required to accomplish an election.
The election will be preceded by a campaign by each candidate seeking the various offices up for election.
Elections may also require voters to make decisions on referendums, initiatives, and other ballot questions.
Free and fair elections
Elections are nominally a relatively mechanical logistical, accounting, and reporting process, but that’s only in theory. Ideally, an election should be free and fair. Many are not, or require extraordinary effort to make them free and fair.
There two main obstacles to free and fair elections:
- The mechanics of logistically running a smooth election.
- Interference or manipulation by individuals and groups seeking to distort the results.
The latter can frequently involve simply arranging for difficulties in the former.
Logistical difficulties can include:
- Long lines
- Too few staff, machines, supplies
- Broken equipment
- Too short hours
- Complex or confusing ballots
- Difficult identification requirements
- Difficult to get to polling locations
- Difficulty registering
- Lost or misplaced ballots
Interference can include:
- Bribing staff
- Bribing voters
- Threatening staff
- Threatening voters
- Fake voters
- Discarding or misplacing ballots
- Fake ballots
- Tampering with equipment, lighting, or electricity
- Artificially arranging for logistical problems
Election monitors are a tried and true tool. Sometimes simply having a disinterested observer watching over the process can deter interference and help guide solution to logistical issues.
An elective office is any office in government that can be filled only through election by the people. Granted, each office can be temporarily filled through other means if the office becomes vacant for any reason.
A political candidate is any politician or individual who seeks to occupy a designated elective office.
The various political candidates for a given elective office each engage in their own respective political campaigns in an effort to persuade the electorate of their superior suitability for that office relative to the competing candidates
A political campaign is the effort expended by and on behalf of an individual political candidate in an effort to be elected or reelected to office.
There is some significant concern about inappropriate influence of large amounts of money in the political system. Outright bribery is certainly illegal, but there is also the concern that large donations to political campaigns may constitute a quid quo pro which is effectively a bribe.
A lot of logistical support is needed to support a political campaign. Political operatives are the individuals driving a political campaign. They themselves are not politicians per se, but they nonetheless live and breathe every aspect of what constitutes the politicians that they support.
Everyone within the country is entitled to freedom of speech. Political speech is especially protected and is based on content intended to relate to some aspect of government or governance, as opposed to speech about matters of no interest to government or governance.
Political opponents in a political campaign may freely comment on seemingly personal matters with impunity to the extent that such comments are intended to establish or refute the suitability of a candidate for elective or appointed office.
Individuals or groups or organizations are all entitled to participate in political speech, whether within the confines of a political campaign or not.
There is some concern and dispute as to whether political speech by organizations, especially those created solely or primarily for the purpose of political speech, as well as businesses is accorded the same protection as for individuals. A deeply divided Supreme Court has decided that speech is protected regardless of whether it be from a single individual or an association of individuals and regardless of the form of such an association. Freedom of association is a constitutionally-protected right. The act of associating does not imply a loss of any other rights.
Each country and potentially each political party will have its own particular process for how candidates are nominated for a given political party. At least in the U.S., this may involve:
- Primary elections in political divisions of the country, such as the state, to determine the degree of support for each candidate.
- Party conventions to finalize the selection of the nominees for the highest elective offices for the party, such as president and vice president, from the candidates who participated in the primary election process.
For major elections, typically for the election of national leaders, a political party will typically have a convention, which is an opportunity for delegates from all of the districts in the nation to come together to finalize their choice of nominees for the general election, approve the party platform, and to generally seek unity of the party in preparation for the general election campaign in which their nominees will seek to prevail over the nominees of the competing political parties.
Each political party will typically produce a manifesto which expresses the principles and objectives of the party. This party platform document will assist voters, helping them align their own principles and objectives with those of one of the political parties. The party platform document will typically be produced in preparation for the party convention. It will likely be voted on at the convention, but typically any disagreements will be worked out in advance so that the vote for the party platform is a pro forma activity at the convention itself.
There may be many elections within a country, state, or locale for a variety of purposes. A general election is the main election to select the final winner for each elective office, as opposed to primary elections which select only the nominees for each party.
General election campaign
There will generally be two distinct campaigns for a given elected office, the first or primary election campaign to choose the nominees for each party, followed by a separate campaign, the general election campaign to select the final winner for each office.
Presidential elections in the U.S. have the added step of an electoral college election for president and vice president. When voters choose a candidate for president and vice president in the U.S., they are actually choosing the party for their state. The winning party in each state then selects electors to represent that state. The number of electors for each state is proportionally based on the most recent national census, which occurs every ten years. Electors are pledged to vote for their party’s nominee, but there is no obligation to do so. In practice, electors do indeed vote as pledged for the party nominee. The actual election of president and vice president occurs approximately a month after the general election itself. Congress must then officially ratify the election and declare the winners.
The U.S. Constitution has a process involving Congress should no candidate receive a majority of the electoral votes.
Technically the electors can choose a different vice president than the chosen president’s running mate, but in practice this does not occur.
The effect of the electoral college system in the U.S. is that the president and vice president are not elected by a strictly popular vote, so it is very possible that a given candidate could win a plurality or even majority of the popular votes for the country, but another candidate could actually win a majority of the electoral votes.
Voting is the action of individual citizens as members of the electorate to directly participate in the election.
Members of the electorate may also participate in the political campaign process, but once they set foot in their designated polling location their only role is as a voter.
Informed voters, informed electorate
Society as a whole benefits from informed citizens. Government benefits from informed citizens as well.
Society’s trust in representative democracy hinges on a trust on individual voters and the electorate as a whole.
Informed voters will make better decisions in the voting booth than uninformed voters.
An informed electorate will make better decisions at choosing the full slate of candidates to place into office in each election.
How to achieve adequately informed voters is a great, daunting, and uncertain task. Government can assist to some extent and individual candidates and their parties as well as other groups will seek to tilt the information in their own favor, with occasional groups who seek a more neutral flow of information, but ultimately the responsibility for informing the individual rests with the individual themselves.
That’s as it should be since the people are the ultimate source for power in our society and its government.
Government officials are in an odd position — on the one hand they have great power over the people, but on the other hand they are critically dependent on the good will of the people.
Government officials may at times seem relatively immune to criticism and may give the appearance of invincible immunity, but there are enough checks and balances and corrective processes in place so that no government official can survive in office if a critical mass of public sentiment turns against them.
In rare cases court trials and even impeachment may be necessary to remove officials, but in many cases the mere prospect of official removal is enough to persuade even the hardiest officials to voluntarily resign.
In many cases the inevitable process of running for reelection enables public sentiment to obtain satisfaction.
Public opinion polls are a mixed bag — they do provide some measure of public sentiment towards individual politicians and positions on issues, but they are notoriously inaccurate and fickle. Sometimes they actually do accurately predict subsequent events, but all too frequently the opposite occurs.
Polls are based on sampling which means they are guaranteed not to reflect the entire population. They are also based on selected media, such as phone calls, which reduces the pool of people who can be sampled.
The precise phrasing of the poll questions very commonly can result in different results than with alternative wording.
We wouldn’t need elections if polls really were accurate, but clearly that is not the case.
Short of the tedious scientific sampling required for polls, officials, staff, politicians and political operatives also resort to more informal techniques, such as just directly talking to groups of people, asking and answering questions, and getting a rough feel for the overall mood on issues and personalities.
Online betting and prediction markets
Online betting web sites and so-called prediction markets provide two interesting alternatives to traditional polling for political elections. With betting, you know the better has a financial stake so it would seem like they have a strong incentive to be right, but that doesn’t really say anything about whether their opinion really is representative of the average voter. Prediction markets don’t have money at stake, but once again there is no sense of how representative of average voters they may be. Nonetheless, they both provide interesting data that is in more real time than traditional polling.
A dry recitation of facts is generally boring and unappealing to most people — they would must rather hear an interesting and compelling story that is formed based on those same dry facts.
A little color helps. Personalizing facts helps. Adding human interest helps.
Anything that frames the facts in a way that people can relate to in their own lives helps.
A story attempts to connect dry facts in some politically or socially meaningful manner.
Stories can be used for a variety of purposes, such as:
- Persuade people of the value of a policy
- Give examples of problems that should be addressed
- Persuade people that the government is addressing an issue
- Persuade people of a danger
- Persuade people of an opportunity
- Calm people worried about a threat
- Dispel irrational fear
- Persaude a voter to vote for or against a candidate or ballot question
Narrative is one or more levels of abstraction removed from both dry facts and compelling stories.
A narrative is a model, an abstraction, for a variety of more specific stories. For example, a narrative might attempt to relate policy to its effects on individuals, families, and communities, while various stories may each relate that narrative in terms of very specific individuals, families, and communities, complete with names, faces, and biographical details, while the underlying narrative is nameless and faceless and lacks personal detail.
A proposal for action in government is partisan if it seeks to pursue the ideology of only a specific political party.
A proposal for action in government is nonpartisan if it seeks to appeal to all parties or no party in particular.
A proposal for action in government is bipartisan if the leaders of both main parties are vigorously in support of he action.
Human nature and larger populations conspire to thwart the values of even the best of societies, resulting in a significant incidence of criminal activity. Efforts can be made to reduce crime, but it will inevitably persist to some degree.
Social systems, particularly government, need to have a wide variety of mechanisms for coping with crime, including:
- Reasonable social services and opportunities for productive pursuits that eliminate a lot of the economic drivers of crime
- Deterrents to crime
- Policing as a backstop to deterrents
- Policing to detect crimes at an early stage before too much damage is done
- Policing to catch crimes in progress
- Investigation to catch perpetrators of crimes
- Prosecution for crimes
- Fines, penalties, incarceration, and other costs as punishment and deterrent for crimes
- Restitution to compensate for loss, punish for the crime, and deter future crime
- Rehabilitation to reduce potential for future crime
Criminal justice system
The criminal justice system has a special place in society and government since it is a force for deterrence of criminal behavior, enforcement of laws, and generally keeping the peace that can directly impact all members of society in their daily lives in their local communities and even their families in their homes.
The major components of the criminal justice system are:
- Statutory laws
- Law enforcement personnel, the police
- Citizens as jurors and witnesses, and as defendants
- Law firms
Businesses, individuals, and nongovernmental organizations may at times be subject to a variety of legal procedures, including criminal law enforcement and civil lawsuits.
Any individual or organization subjected to a legal process has constitutionally-protected rights to due process, including a speedy trial.
Civil and criminal cases
Courts handle both criminal and civil cases.
In a criminal case one or more parties (individuals) are accused of violating one or more laws. There may or may not be victims. In any case, the defendants are accused of causing harm to society overall, regardless of any specific victims.
In a civil case one or more parties bring a civil lawsuit about a party alleging harm to their own person, property, or assets or some personal loss.
A guilty verdict in a criminal case can result in a financial penalty, incarceration, community service, supervised probation, or some combination thereof.
A finding for the plaintiff in a civil case will result in either an order for the defendant to take some action to redress the alleged harm or to remunerate the plaintiff for harm incurred, or both.
Civil justice system and civil lawsuits
Private disputes that do not involve a crime can be addressed using the civil justice system, by filing a civil lawsuit. Judgments and settlements can provide the plaintiff with significant relief to compensate for the alleged harm or loss.
Civil lawsuit judgments
The whole point of a civil lawsuit is not to get someone fined or thrown in jail, but to receive compensation for harm or loss. If the judge or jury finds in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant will be required to provide the plaintiff with compensation based on both actual harm and actual costs, and possibly even a punitive penalty to deter the defendant and others from committing the same or similar offense in the future.
Civil lawsuit settlements
Due to uncertainty of the final judgment in a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff and defendant frequently decide to agree on a settlement, a compromise, that gives them both part of what they seek but without exposing themselves to all of the risk of the final judgment. If the court finds against the plaintiff, they would get nothing, and if the court finds against the defendant the damages could be far greater than any proposed settlement amount. Even if one side believes they have a very strong case, judges and juries can be notoriously fickle and unpredictable. Most people go for the easy win rather than rolling the dice for the big win.
Federal and state courts
Both criminal and civil cases can be pursued in either state or federal courts.
Federal courts focus a combination of three types of cases:
- Those that have a national scope.
- Special circumstances, such as bank robbery, securities laws, drug trafficking, and terrorism.
- Civil rights violations, which historically have been problematic at the state and local level in some regions of the country.
Most personal crime against victims is covered by state law rather than federal law. Even though the penalties for such crime may be fairly similar between states, these crimes tend to have more of a local importance than a national importance.
State courts tend to focus on cases of a local nature, not crossing state boundaries, or involving violations of federal law.
Even rather severe criminal acts, such as murder, rape, brutal assault, and robbery and fraud involving a lot of money will still tend to be prosecuted at the local level.
Bank robbery is a special case, with robberies of even relatively small amounts of money still considered federal cases, with the FBI having jurisdiction.
Most crime is considered a state or local issue.
Prosecution is the pursuit of a government charge of criminal behavior against one or more individuals in the court system, federal or state.
The accused is entitled to due process, but the court system is still adversarial in nature, by design, with a strong advocate on each side.
Court trials are based on the adversarial system, by design, where each side has a champion, an advocate, who focuses all of their energy on solely their one side.
This system is inherently Darwinian in nature, but focused on fact and reason, so that the side with the strongest, fittest case will prevail, with the judge or jury freed from the responsibility of themselves investigating and figuring out all of the details of the case and simply focusing on judging which side has presented the strongest or fittest case in court.
The appeal process is intended to counteract any lingering bias that may creep into the adversarial system, due to bias, inattention, laziness, or incompetence on the part of the two advocates, the judge, or the jury.
Nominally, business, industry, and commerce in the private sector are the heart of the economy of a country. But government impacts the economy in a number of ways:
- Money — created by the government and controlled by the Federal Reserve.
- Government is the largest consumer of many goods and services.
- Government contracts with many vendors in the private sector which in turn consume many goods and services from other businesses in the private sector.
- Government employees consume private sector goods and services.
- Social Security and other financial transfers enable many individuals to consume private sector goods and services.
Government has the ability to redistribute wealth and income within the economy through transfer payments, or simply transfers. Social Security, veterans benefits, and various welfare programs are some of the major examples. Subsidies are another, such as tax incentives to install solar panels or to buy electric cars.
Checks and balances
The three main branches of government have the ability to monitor and if necessary challenge the activities of the other branches.
The specifics of checks and balances are not relevant to this level of framework, but include executive veto of legislation, executive appointment of judges, legislative ratification of treaties and approval of key executive appointments, and court decisions on constitutionality.
Rather than being a kingdom with a single sovereign leader who rules all and whose every word is the law, most modern democracies recognize sovereignty at three levels:
- The sovereignty of the people — the government and its leaders serve at the pleasure of the people. All power of government flows from the people.
- Sovereignty of the states — a country such as the Unites States is a federation of the states, each state retaining most of its own sovereignty even as they concede an enumeration of sovereign powers to the national or federal government
- The national government as sovereign — although the people retain ultimate sovereignty, the national government is granted sovereign powers, as described in this paper, with the understanding that the rights of the people, sovereign and otherwise, will be respected
The press, media, journalists
Media outlets, traditionally known as the press, serves several distinct roles related to government:
- Help government educate the people about important issues, laws, policies, and programs
- Help people understand what is really going on in government
- Investigate and disclose aspects of government operations that people may find shocking or offensive, or even be outright illegal
- Advocate for policy options and change in government
Traditional media was primarily in the form of newspapers and pamphlets. Magazines came along. Then radio. Then television. Then cable TV. And finally the Internet (web sites, email newsletters.) And then social media.
Each media outlet has its own focus and tone and possibly even an outright ideology. Although there is at least a superficial intention for traditional media outlets to avoid outright bias, it does tend to creep in. Even so, the idea is that despite any overt or latent bias, the net bias across a wide range of media outlets will average out to something resembling balance.
Despite the overall tone of a media outlet, it remains up to the individual journalist to present each specific story.
Journalists are responsible for any background investigation to determine facts, to gather points of view, and to decide how it all will be organized into a coherent story that does indeed tell a story rather than simply offer a list of facts and opinions.
Leaks and whistle-blowers
Technically, a leak is thought of as a bad thing, a failure of the system, but in reality most leaks are intentional, although still highlighting how problematic communication between government and the public can be.
Leaks are also a time-honored tradition. Whistle-blowers are generally considered heroes by society, although in some cases, where the leak is too damaging or embarrassing the leaker may be vilified or even branded as a traitor.
Off the record comments
Sometimes it is politically risky for an official to publicly make a statement and have it attributed to themselves. They can secure agreement with the reporter that the statement is being made off the record, on background, and not for attribution, or attributed as an unnamed official or unnamed senior official.
Although we don’t normally consider average citizens to be part of the government, they really are. Not only do average citizens vote to elect candidates to the executive and legislative branches, but maybe more importantly, fear or anticipation of how they might vote in the next election is a major if not primary motivator for the President and members of Congress.
People in government, whether elected or appointed, may be free to decide and act as they choose, but the concern for what might happen in the next election is a key part of governance.
The Supreme Court and federal courts are an exception since they are appointments for life, so the next election has no direct personal impact. But, even if no direct, personal impact, there may be indirect impact, which affects friends and associates of the judges and justices. Still, there does remain a qualitative difference between the two.
Lame duck presidents are another exception — they may never again seek elected office, but there may be indirect effects of their decisions, on family members, friends, or members of their own party. Still, there does remain a qualitative difference between affect on your individual person and effects felt at a distance.
Generally, the people refers to individuals who have been accorded the government-sanctioned legal status of citizens.
Public is a somewhat ambiguous term. Generally, in the context of a discussion of government, the public is anybody or any organization outside of the government itself. That would includes businesses as well as average citizens. In some contexts, the public excludes most organizations, especially establishment organizations, and is limited to individual citizens and possibly civil society organizations. In other contexts, the public really is simply the people, or a synonym for the same.
Not all individual members of the public are actually citizens in a legal sense, so the public is not a strict synonym for citizens.
Generally a person is simply an individual, who may or may not be a citizen. The U.S. Constitution uses the term person, unless citizenship is required.
As a result of a Supreme Court decision, there is now the issue that for the purposes of political speech, corporations and other organizations are technically considered to be persons.
Government does confer the special status of citizen on natural born and naturalized individuals. Citizens have rights and responsibilities not accorded to non-citizens, but generally citizens are simply the people.
Private citizens are those citizens who do not serve in government in some official capacity, such as being an elected official or representative, an appointed official, or government staff position with some significant level of responsibility or authority. They have no authority or responsibility for any decision or activity of government.
A variety of positions are ambiguous as to whether they make a citizen less of a private citizen:
- Military service
- Law enforcement
- Non-management government employees
- Service on jury duty
The electorate is the subset of citizens who are eligible to vote, which would exclude youth, felons, and those judged not mentally competent.
The term electorate is generally used as a synonym for the people and citizens when their voting potential is being emphasized.
Every member of the electorate is a potential voter, but until they step into the ballot booth and deposit their ballot in the ballot box they are not a voter.
Indigenous peoples, tribes, and nations
Countries such as the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Australia also have indigenous peoples, such as Native American tribes, and the Aboriginals of Australia who have hybrid rights, a combination of the rights of citizens of the country and their tribal rights.
Tribal nations are quasi-independent nations. They are not countries per se and not recognized as states by other countries, but nonetheless have a recognized degree of sovereignty.
Officials are individuals who occupy positions of power and responsibility in government for the purpose of leading, organizing, or delivering a service within government or to the public.
They occupy their office either through election or appointment.
Officials should not be confused with representatives. Senators and congressmen, as well as their state and local counterparts are elected representatives, but not officials. The President, governors, mayors, and heads of agencies and departments are officials.
Elected officials are government officials who achieve their power and responsibility as a result of election by the people, the electorate.
Elected officials generally wield more power and responsibility than non-elected officials.
Lesser government officials may be appointed rather than elected. They tend to be chosen for their professional merit and technical competence rather than their mere electoral popularity, but political patronage frequently plays a role as well.
Elected representatives represent the interests of their constituents in government. They create and vote on legislation on behalf of their constituents. Senators, congressmen, and their state and local counterparts are elected representatives.
The role of elected representatives is the heart of the concept of representative democracy. The ultimate power resides with the people, the individual voters, but through the agency of elected representatives.
The individual who reside in a geographic area, such as a state, district, or locale, that is represented by an elected representative are the constituents of that area and representative. They may or may not be citizens. They may or may not be part of the electorate. It is their residence that makes them a constituent.
Constituents look to their elected representatives to represent them in government proceedings and for support from government.
It is ambiguous whether individuals are to be considered constituents of elected officials such as mayors, governors, and the President. Traditionally, constituency related only to elected representatives such as congressmen and senators.
Elected representatives, and elected officials as well, respond to the needs of their constituents and look to them for support in future elections.
Generally, all information about all aspects of government should be publicly accessible unless there is some special sensitivity issue involved. This includes all planning processes, decisions, actions, operations, reviews, reports, and investigations.
Exceptions may include:
- National security
- Personnel records
- Personal or sensitive information collected as part of investigations of private sector entities (businesses, individuals, organizations)
- Diplomatic discussions
- Internal discussions and deliberations
Exactly where the dividing line is between information for which the public should have transparent access vs. the need for discrete private communication will always be debated. Ultimately it is subjective and a matter of discretion, but it will always be fair to question, challenge, and rethink where that dividing line should really be as times change.
To the extent possible and reasonable, all transactions that the government is party to, both within government and between government and the public, should be recorded in a manner that is publicly accessible. Income tax returns and payments are an obvious exception.
That seems reasonable enough, but this can present issues, such as identity theft and fraud, where public records may contain personal identifying information that can be used to perpetrate fraud.
It will remain a constant balancing act to ensure transparency and public access as well as privacy and personal security.
The Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, empowers organizations and even individuals to submit formal requests to gain access to information and documents held by the government which is not directly accessible by the public, assuring a significant level of government transparency. Journalists commonly use FOIA requests to gain access to what is considered sensitive information. It is not uncommon for significant portions of the requested documents to be redacted or blacked out so that the document can be released even though the redacted information cannot be released.
Generally, government should request and retain as little information as possible on the public, individuals, businesses, and organizations, except when information is needed for legitimate government operations, identification, and investigation of criminal and civil matters.
In situations where government does have some legitimate need for access to sensitive personal information, care must be taken to safeguard that information and assure that it remains private.
Government also has an obligation to protect the privacy of the public from invasion by other members of the public.
Privacy entitles one or more individuals to keep secrets, even from the government, unless the government can show a compelling state interest.
Secrecy in government will be discussed shortly.
There is an ongoing debate in society as to whether individuals are permitted to use data encryption methods which cannot be cracked by the government. There is no clear answer at this time. On the one hand, people have a right to privacy, but on the other hand the government has an obligation to protect the rights and interests of all members of society. Courts traditionally performed the balancing of the two, but modern technology has the ability to prevent courts from intervening.
Confidences come in two forms, both made under the commitment to not share information with others:
- Information shared between individuals.
- Information made available to organizations or professionals.
When information is made available to government, some of it will be maintained as confidential, while some of it will be made public as a matter of public record.
In contrast with private life where privacy has primacy and secrecy is to be respected, secrecy in governance must be treated with great care. Generally, transparency must be the rule in government, but secrecy comes into play with:
- Sensitive discussions over personnel matters, where the individuals retain their privacy rights.
- Negotiations, where posturing is a key requirement to maintain an advantage.
- Matters of national security.
- Law enforcement activity where criminal behavior is suspected or under investigation.
- Internal records and communications, including memorandums and email messages, reflecting sensitive internal discussions or deliberations within a department or agency, with foreign governments, or with state and local governments.
- Protection of trade secrets when that protected information might become known to the government as part of an investigation, inspection, or other inquiry or activity.
- Protection of the privacy of individuals when private information becomes known to government officials or staff as a side effect of some government activity.
Secrecy is used inappropriately on occasion. This may range from a mere indiscretion to a serious violation of law.
Secrecy will continue to be a matter of vigorous debate, both within and outside of government, with evolution of positions and policies as time progresses and attitudes and sentiment of people, society, and government itself evolve.
Many and maybe even most documents and information within government is readily available to members of the public. Official internal records, documents, and communications and deliberations are not normally accessible to the public. Information, documents, or other materials that are not intended to be made available to the public will be marked or otherwise categorized as classified material.
Over time, it is normally expected that the value of particular information, documents, and materials will decline as the world changes, leading to the eventual declassification of such materials so that eventually many of them will be made available to the public.
There has traditionally been a tendency within government to over-classify documents. Reforms occur occasionally, but government itself changes so often that new problems crop up that demand fresh reforms. Constant oversight and review of classification policies is required.
Sensitive, confidential, and even classified materials and information may at times be prematurely made available to the public, for one or more of several reasons:
- Whistle-blower innocently seeking to correct a mistake or failure of government policy or decision-making.
- Traitor deliberately seeking to harm society.
- Intentional and official leaks of information to influence public perception and opinion.
Judging the intent and impact of leaks can be quite problematic, with the distinction between a whistle-blower and traitor being very vague and a gray spectrum. Sometimes an individual believes that they are protecting society from an overreaching government rather than trying to harm society itself, but others may disagree. Attitudes on the matter are constantly evolving.
Governments spy on each other, each trying to gain an advantage on the other and each seeking to disadvantage the other, but efforts by other governments to engage in espionage are viewed in a very negative and asymmetric manner. Spying is treason. Spying comes in four main forms:
- A foreigner masquerading as a citizen, seeking classified material for transfer to another country.
- A citizen seeking financial gain from the sale of classified material to another country.
- A politically motivated citizen giving classified material to another country for non-financial, political reasons.
- A socially or politically motivated citizen disclosing classified material publicly for non-financial, social or political reasons.
Technically, one could be blackmailed into espionage, but that is more a theoretical risk than a common reality.
We would like to imagine government as being one of the highest forms of human intellect and selfless thought and action, but human nature is not so easily set aside.
One moment we see and hear a government official speaking and acting in a truly inspiring manner, and then in a blink of an eye the same or a similar official acts in a silly, vain, thoughtless, mean-spirited manner that completely wipes out the respect we had for government a few moments ago.
To be clear, many if not most government officials and staff really do behave in a very respectable manner much of the time.
In truth, maybe we should be treating government the way we would treat a bin of produce — most of the produce is high quality, so we shouldn’t let the few bad apples spoil our confidence in the whole bin.
Government must also recognize that the public is neither a herd of cattle nor an army of mechanical robots, and that even if rules are clear, the public on occasion needs at least some leeway in complying with government requests and requirements.
No matter how sophisticated the structure of government nor how competent the individuals running it nor how great the promises made by that government, there will always be the question of trust. Not even the best government can stand for long or be very effective except to the degree of trust that the public has in that government.
Trust cannot be demanded or enforced. It can only be obtained to the degree that government inspires the trust of the public and to the degree that the public finds government responsive to the needs of the public.
The public will trust the government only to the extent that the public finds the government to be trustworthy.
Yes, governments can rule with an iron first, crush resistance, suppress dissent, and enforce all laws and rules with ruthless precision and force, but ultimately such efforts are doomed to fail without the consent (trust) of the people. Yes, they can succeed for awhile, even decades, but eventually the lack of trust will result in the false edifice crumbling down.
In truth, even dictatorships last longer than expected because despite their public posture, the leaders know that under the table they need to give the public enough leeway to live a marginally acceptable life so that they don’t rise up in rebellion. That’s a rather stilted form of trust, but it does prove the point that trust is an absolute requirement for all governments.
Regardless of the degree of trust people have in the government, the real question is what level of confidence in government is inspired, to what extent do people believe that government will have their backs in terms of:
- Protection from invasion and in times of war
- Protection from natural disasters
- Protection from criminal acts, including fraud
- Fair treatment under the law
- Equal access to opportunity
- Public health
- Sound economy
- Protection and respect for rights
Dysfunctional human nature
For all of their good qualities, people, groups, and organizations can also act in ways that are counter to a sense of goodness and the common good of society as a whole. Such social animus manifests itself in many forms, such as:
- Spiteful, envious, jealous, resentful
- Incitement, baiting, fighting words
- Group-centric thinking and behavior
- Criminal behavior that has social animus rather than economics as its primary motivation
Social animus dysfunction can range from mere annoyance to outright harm that can come at a number of levels:
- To specific individuals
- Self-harm to the dysfunctional individual or group themselves
- To a specific group of individuals
- To entire organizations
- To entire segments of society
- To entire strata of society
- To government and its ability to provide various services
- To all of society
Government will be forced to respond when any negative effects become pervasive or a threat to government itself.
Local communities and law enforcement may be sufficient to cope with localized dysfunction.
In more extreme situations laws and policy action may be required.
There are many different ways for individuals to participate in government:
- Vote as a citizen
- Run for office
- Be appointed to office
- Apply for a civil service position
- Join the military
- Supply goods or services to government as a vendor
- Pay your taxes
- Utilize services provided by the government
- Contact government officials or representatives with questions or issues to be addressed
- Lobby government on issues
- Sign a petition
- Donate money
- Donate land
- File a formal complaint
- File a law suit
Elements of influence
Beyond the actual elements of government that have actual responsibility and power, influence on those elements is also itself an element of government. What are the elements of influence?
- The electorate — the citizens, the voters, constituents, who influence government by their ability to grant or withhold their votes based on issues, policy choices, confidence, and personalities of elected officials.
- Direct feedback from citizens — letters, phone calls, emails, social media expressions directed from citizens to any of the elements of government, with congressional representatives as a traditional favored target, since they tend to be the most responsive and closest to their constituents.
- The elite — influential individuals, typically of wealth or social position who are positioned to influence both government and the rest of society independent of whether they have specific experience relevant to the matter at hand. They may rely of selected experts or their own opinion and life experience.
- Experts— professionals and academics who have specific expertise in matters of interest to government.
- Celebrities — individuals whose popular appeal enables them to influence popular opinion and enables them to gain access to government forums such as congressional hearings and spokesperson opportunities.
- The media — through editorials, opinion pieces, and their general ability to influence the electorate and other elements of influence.
- Commentators — individuals with strong opinions that may carry weight either with government officials, staff, or the public.
- Lobbyists — anyone who directly appeals to government officials and staff, although a small fraction of them are specially designated as registered lobbyists as their primary function when interacting with government.
- Money — bribery itself is illegal, but money has many ways to indirectly influence government decisions and operations.
- Think tanks — write papers and hold public forums to analyze and advocate for issues, positions, and alternatives.
- Interest groups — express opinions on issues of interest to specific constituent groups.
- Civil society — a general reference to any non-governmental organization (NGO) seeking to influence government policy decisions and operations.
- Activists — individuals or members of groups whose primary focus is advocating for matters that tend to be considered counter to the interests of the establishment
- Protesters — activists or other individuals who engage in public protest to draw attention to matters which they feel are not being given sufficient attention by the government or the mainstream media.
- Counterprotesters — individuals who are supportive of government on matters for which protesters are in opposition.
- Trade groups — organizations representing the interests of specific industries, economic sectors, or groups of businesses.
- Polls — an indirect and approximate measure of sentiment on issues.
- Facts — statistics, observations, and scientific measurements that can weigh on decisions and operations.
- Arguments — specific lines of reasoning presented as if fact to sway opinion of either those inside government or those seeking to influence government.
- Petitions, referendums, and initiatives — can sway or direct government decisions and allocation of resources, primarily at the state and local level.
At least at the state level, citizen-initiated referendums, initiatives, are a practical way for people to directly influence governance.
Petitions have value at the local level and as symbolic gestures, but national government is now too large and complex for them to work well at all.
The White House web site does have a petition system which allows any citizen to vote on existing White House petitions or to create a new one. Granted, they only require that the White House make a public response, but they are a way of highlighting issues from the bottom up.
People tend to be more successful and content to the degree that there is a reasonable degree of order in their communities. Government is a primary vehicle for achieving and maintaining order.
A reasonable degree of predictability is very beneficial in society, allowing people to plan ahead as well as focus more on the tasks in front of them. Without order, predictability is impossible.
Change is a good thing too, and absolutely required for the health of society, but there needs to be a reasonable balance between order and change.
People need justice to feel that they have a secure place in society. Justice tends to respect order, but occasionally the two do get out of sync, possibly because times change and the preferred model of justice has moved faster than the underlying social order.
At those times, change may be in order, although the nature, timing, and pace of change may be a matter of debate and dispute.
It is important for all segments of society to have equal access to all elements of society, including government.
Inequalities may be due to historical factors.
As society evolves, new segments may appear, either due to immigration or to division of existing segments, in which case inequalities may arise in the new segments which may need to be addressed by government policies and actions.
Not all aspects of social justice can be addressed or fully addressed by government or by government alone.
Nor can all aspects of all inequalities be addressed overnight. Priorities need to be set. Persistence and patience are needed in equal doses.
The public depends on the stability of government in their daily lives. People need to know where they stand and what role government will have in their lives. People want the trains to run on time.
Stability is a key metric for government.
That said, government must change with the times, so there is a constant need for revision at some level. That said, any impulse to change must be moderated to make it palatable, economic, and sustainable so that people can maintain their confidence that government is stable.
As with nature, government may evolve slowly with minor changes or on rare occasions with big, radical leaps. Radical change is not out of the question, but must be considered carefully since the consequences could be far-reaching and unlikely to be readily apparent in advance.
Even very minor revisions amount to change, but it is not uncommon to reserve the term change for large changes, sea changes — Change with a capital C rather than a little c.
Some change will occur as officials, government staff, and elected representatives respond to events, technological advances, and market forces, while some change occurs only as a result of pressure from lobbyists, constituent sentiment, activists, and influence from interest groups, among others. See all of the elements listed in the Elements of influence section.
Changes to government are usually packaged as reform. Many reforms are merely proposed reforms, while only occasionally does a reform package actually become accepted and successfully and fully implemented. Even if accepted, authorized, and money is appropriated, many reforms fail to deliver the results that were originally envisioned by the reformers. Sometimes a reform works as literally specified, but falls short of expectations of the reformers or their supporters. Revision or rollback is then called for. Sometimes it takes a series of failed or mediocre attempts before a reform package truly takes root and blossoms.
In short, reform is an essential part of governance and can be well worth the effort, but is frequently not as easy as it seems.
The system has many processes in place to effect real change, but sometimes that is not enough for some people, who don’t feel the system is being responsive, and that the system itself is the problem rather than enabling solutions and change. Various forms of disruption may then be pursued in pursuit of change, such as:
- Protest, demonstrations, rallies
- Civil disobedience
- Civil war
Revolution is the ultimate change in government, through violent force, but of course should only be even contemplated if circumstances are truly drastic.
Support for revolution must be widespread through all regions, segments, and strata of society for it to succeed.
Short of outright revolution, rebellion is the use of force to force changes in the established governmental order or to simply refuse to comply with demands of the government.
A rebellion may be limited to one segment of society.
Rebellions are usually put down, failing to achieve the desired change.
Insurrection is the traditional term for what we call rebellion today. The U.S. Constitution refers to both, as if synonyms.
All governments are authorized to put down insurrection and rebellion, using whatever level of force is necessary, so insurrection is not typically a fruitful route for seeking change.
An uprising is generally the same as insurrection and rebellion, but more extreme than mere unrest.
Again, the usual result is repression and disappointment.
A dysfunctional government in a dysfunctional society is likely to be faced with significant unrest which leads to disorder and disruption, or worse. Government has an obligation to maintain order, but there is a very real risk that efforts to quell unrest, disorder, and disruption may be too extreme and disproportional, and have the effect of repressing normal dissent and rights to speech, press, assembly, and association.
Even the best of modern governments are occasionally faced with unruly dissent that needs to be suppressed. A thrown rock or an outright riot now and then is to be expected even in the healthiest of societies since passions can sometimes run high. Repression results when there is a repeated pattern of extreme and unrelenting suppression of rights over time.
Short of outright rebellion or revolution, civil unrest is an option as well. To be clear, government has an obligation to put down insurrection, rebellion, and violent or disruptive unrest, such as rioting, so unrest is usually an unwise choice as well, especially since the color of violence has a very good chance of severely muting any actual message of request for change.
Yes, unrest can lead to change, sometimes, but commonly won’t and is not a preferred first choice — or even a wise second or third choice. Working through the system will always be a wise choice.
Protest, demonstration, and rallies
It is not uncommon for generally negative sentiment concerning some aspect of society or policy of government to arise. The goal should be to deter it from spiraling out of control into outright, violent unrest. It may simply be all talk, even shouting, or may evolve into peaceful protests, demonstrations, and rallies or other so-called actions, preferably peaceful.
Such peaceful actions remain legal as long as they respect the law and allow government to continue to function and fellow citizens to go about their daily lives.
Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition, but is still a violation of law, distinguishing it from protest, demonstration, and rallies which can be accomplished fully within the law.
In fact, being in violation of the law is the explicit point of an act of civil disobedience — to make the statement that the nature of the grievance is such a burden that the participants are willing to risk the consequences of breaking the law in order to draw attention to the grievance.
The cultural norm for civil disobedience is that it remain civil, with no violence and no aggressive action towards the officers who inevitably enforce the law. Officers may be required to physically remove individuals, but normally with little if any force required. Individuals usually either calmly go with officers when they are grabbed by the arm or don’t resist when one or more officers are forced to carry them away.
Superficially the act of civil disobedience may constitute an actual disruption, but the cultural norm is that the disruption is so minor and temporary that most people are fully able to go about their lives and access government and business and private facilities and services with little to no real disruption, and no feeling that their safety is at risk.
Forceful resistance to the efforts of officers would result in more forceful enforcement by the officers and a greater charge, and also cross the line from the traditional norm of peaceful civil disobedience to outright disruption.
Actions become illegal when they cross the line and devolve into some level of force, either disruptive of the daily lives of people or interfere with operation of government or outright violence.
Any kind of disruption has the potential to result in disorder that puts social stability at risk.
Many disruptions are relatively minor and temporary so that the risk of significant disorder is very minimal.
Nonetheless, law enforcement must remain vigilant to both respect civil rights and the right to speak, associate, and assemble, as well as to be on the alert for any truly destabilizing disruption that has the potential to cause harm and damage or even simply to disrupt the daily lives of members of the public.
Passion and anger can quickly take over in situations of disorder, resulting in an escalation into violence, such as throwing of objects, fighting, beatings, breaking of windows, looting, fires, and general destruction of property.
Riots tend to be short-lived and dissipate almost as quickly as they came about, as opposed to a true uprising which might use riot as a tool, much the way fire can be used as a tool, but with some political goal clearly in focus, whereas a riot is ultimately simply an acting out of anger.
Disorder does occur on occasion, maybe more commonly as a result of natural disaster or accident, but usually local government is able to relatively quickly restore order. This is not necessarily always the case. All levels of government must be prepared for the possibility that disorder will quickly spin out of control and devolve into uncontrollable chaos.
Revolution and rebellion are conflicts between the people and the government. Civil war is a conflict between distinct groups of people in the same country, at a national level.
A coup is the sudden seizing of power in a country through other than lawful democratic means (elections and lawful appointments.) Frequently violent, but there can be so-called bloodless coups.
Regime change is a change in political power within a country by one or more foreign countries either by direct invasion or through indirect, even democratic means, possibly by influencing and aiding groups using resources and support from outside the country, as well as support for and coordination of nongovernmental organizations.
A common strategy is to incite domestic unrest with the expectation that it will lead to favorable elections, a political compromise, or outright rebellion.
On occasion, one country may seek to invade another. This is an act of war. This causes a massive diversion of resources in both government and society as a whole. It may also cause a suspension of rights, to the extent needed for the country to cope with the invasion.
Invasion is one reason for a country to be at a state of war. The country could also be involved in a military conflict in another country, but not suffer an invasion into its own borders.
Conflict can occur at many levels, from individual citizens to entire countries.
At the simplest level, individuals can resolves their inter-personal conflicts on their own.
Friends, colleagues, neighbors, or even strangers can intervene and assist in achieving a resolution.
Law enforcement and the courts can also intervene to resolve conflicts.
Courts can resolve disputes between individuals or businesses or other organizations and the government.
Disputes between different agencies of government or different levels of government can frequently be resolved simply with discussions, but may also require intercession of the courts.
Countries can use direct talks and diplomatic procedures to work through disputes.
Third party countries can work back channels to help the disputing countries achieve a satisfactory resolution.
International tribunals are sometimes needed to resolve disputes between countries.
Disputes between countries can take many years or even decades to resolve.
And sometimes disputes between countries can lead to armed conflict and even invasion.
The threat or promise of retribution or retaliation is frequently sufficient to deter other parties from engaging in undesirable actions.
Although a free and open society is the desired goal, there are occasions or circumstances in which a variety of restrictions might be instituted and enforced, beyond bans on criminal activity, not all of which are necessarily desirable, such as:
- Prohibition of libel
- Prohibition of slander
- Prohibition of incitement and fighting words
- Public decency restrictions for speech, dress, and behavior
- Prohibition of sexual relations with minors
- Prohibition of disclosure of confidential, trade secret, or classified information
- Outright censorship based on content
- Access restrictions for security or to avoid unrest
- Curfews in circumstances of unrest
- Marshal law in circumstances of outright chaos
A major objective of government is to prevent small groups from gaining outsize power and commandeering society or government in a way that is grossly disproportionate to their numbers. Granted, leadership and elite experts are to be valued, but a clear goal is to assure that the majority rules.
In some situations a super-majority (e.g., 2/3) is warranted to assure only a minimal amount of disappointment and dissent among the losers.
Dominant political party
A healthy society will have more than one political party. The existence of multiple parties is effectively a check on excess by a single party. The major parties will tend to exchange power, one being dominant for some stretch of time, until the people decide that they have a greater need for whatever the other party has to offer and give them a majority in an election cycle. The dominant party will have the opportunity to refashion government to more closely align it with their own ideology. Over time, as the various parties jockey for and switch control, the alternation of ideologies will tend to average between the ideologies, producing a more moderate government than if only a single party dominated.
When one party dominates, the other party or parties function as the opposition. They may seek to thwart the policy changes of the dominant party, but they may also have the effect of moderating the policies of the dominant party. At a minimum, the opposition party will keep the flame of their party and its ideology alive, pending the inevitable transition to switch from the current dominant party to the current opposition party becoming the new dominant party.
The founding fathers of America had grave concerns about the ability of motivated small groups or factions to effectively seize control of government. Majority rule is one way to assure that their concerns are not realized.
A straight simple majority or even a super-majority is frequently insufficient to achieve a level of buy-in to lead to tranquility. A true consensus of 100% agreement is not commonly achievable, but a general consensus is a reasonable objective.
That is not to say that consensus is likely to be achieved on a very regular basis, but at least that it is a reasonable standard to hold as an achievable ideal.
A common technique to achieve consensus is to water down the proposal so that even if the proponents are a little disappointed not to get everything they wanted, at least the original opponents can feel that they can live with the compromise proposal.
There is an old saying that the only really durable compromise (or negotiation) is one in which both sides gave up something that they held dear.
Tyranny of the majority
The flip side of factions is the prospect that a zealous majority could refrain from respecting the rights of minority groups. This is a thorny problem, but the system does at least acknowledge the importance of the majority respecting minorities.
The saving grace may be that majorities are difficult to obtain so that coalitions of minorities or with minorities are commonly needed to achieve a practical majority. This gives minorities a perceived power greater than their actual numbers.
Separation of government into several branches and levels also makes it more difficult for a majority to remain in power for an extended period of time, giving minorities more opportunities to work towards coalitions or at least not be under the thumb of any given tyranny for too long.
A fair amount of the communication from government is strictly benign and informative:
- Office hours
On occasion, either due to national emergencies or political motivation, particular government communications may cross the line from being strictly benign to outright propaganda, particularly when it becomes:
- Promotes a particular point of view
- Promotes a particular political cause
- Defames some segment of society
In between benign communication and propaganda is government communications which simply encourages or discourages designated activities, nominally for some nonpolitical purpose, such as:
- Saving money
- Eating nutritious food
- Defining nutritious food
- Conserving water during a drought
- Conserving electricity during a heat wave
- Buying energy-efficient appliances and vehicles
Most decisions and activities can best be made by individuals of their own volition without any influence by government, but sometimes it becomes advantageous to society as a whole to strongly encourage individuals to make decisions that they might not otherwise make at the present time. Government may need to advocate in favor of a decision on the part of individuals.
Traditionally such advocacy has been known as the bully pulpit, or more pejoratively as jawboning.
Advocacy is generally a function of the executive branch, whether by the heads of departments and agencies, staff, or the president himself.
Some government services are free for the asking, some require payment of fees, and some are entitlement programs where the service (which may be in the form on a monetary payment) is available as the result of the recipient being a member of a specified class or category. The major entitlement programs are:
- Social Security — accrue based on income earned
- Medicare/Medicaid — as a result of age
- Welfare programs — as the result of limited income
- Veterans benefits — as the result of military service
Every member of society has at least some dependence on government, even if it be only national security and law enforcement.
A lot of basic infrastructure is also provided by government, including interstate highways that are needed for transportation of goods to markets. Most streets and roads are owned and maintained by local or state governments.
Most individuals and their families depend on jobs, and most employers depend on the infrastructure that is provided by government.
Individuals and their families depend on a wide range of safety measures provided by government, including food, drugs, energy, air quality, vehicles, transportation, and workplace safety.
It is not the goal of government for everyone in society to be completely dependent on government. Individuals and their families, businesses, and other organizations are intended to be independent and free to pursue their interests and goals without the permission or interference of government, unless government can show that it has a compelling interest for the common welfare of society as a whole.
Compelling state interest
The general standard for whether government should be involved in some activity or attempted to regulate, prohibit, or compel some action on the part of the public is whether the government has a compelling state interest, such as:
- To protect the people from harm
- To protect the rights of the people
- To play a role in society that has been assigned to government by the people (Constitution)
- To maintain the integrity of the government so that it may continue to serve those interests
Founding father Thomas Jefferson spoke of progress of the human mind and the need for our institutions, including government, to progress as we and the world around us evolve.
Progress can sometimes be quite rapid, but sometimes painfully slow as well, or feel painfully rushed, frequently depending on the party and ideology one is associated with.
Progress is inevitable, even if not at the pace one desires.
Sometimes progress appears to be more of a regression, a step or leap backwards, but over time apparent regressions will tend to resolve themselves — at least to the degree that government and society as a whole remain at least relatively functional.
Consensus is generally a good thing, but not always easily reachable or even reachable with great effort. Nonetheless, it is a great goal to always have.
Sometimes difficult decisions are needed even when no consensus can be reached. That is always a tool available in society, but it should also generally be used only as a last resort.
Some degree of compromise is commonly needed in order to achieve at least an approximation of consensus.
Compromise is certainly not the first, best preference, but is a wise path when consensus is otherwise out of the question.
An alternative to compromise is to defer action and simply accept and endure the status quo until either a true consensus or an acceptable compromise can be reached.
Accepting the current state of affairs in society, the status quo, can be a double-edged sword, sometimes allowing a stable society to thrive, while delaying needed change at other times, leading to social decline or unrest. Society, its leaders, and its members are constantly walking a tightrope, always agonizing over whether the status quo is currently a good thing or a bad thing.
The track of progress over time constitutes the history of a country and a people.
History is recorded, reviewed, and studied, both to learn from it and to be reminded of the lessons learned as progress was made, to guide us both in the here and now and on the path into the future as well.
Sometimes elements of history repeat themselves, or at least appear to repeat, although any repetition is rarely exact and accurate, and frequently can merely be an illusion as subtle factors may be in play that are not always readily apparent.
Some aspects of history are so compelling that we feel compelled to repeat them or at least pay homage to them, whether through special holidays, events, programs, education, or other ways of ingraining them in our national values.
Immigration is nominally more of a social issue, the decision of individuals to move around as their natural rights permit them, but government does have a compelling state interest to assure that the numbers of individuals flowing into the country does not exceed the available resources to support them, as well as to assure that society is protected from undesirable elements, mainly criminals.
America is famously billed as a nation of immigrants — everybody (besides Native Americans) is either an immigrant or descended by no more than a few generations from immigrants.
The intention of immigration is to achieve citizenship as quickly as possible.
Individuals and their families sometimes come to the U.S. solely for temporary economic purposes, with the intent to eventually return to their former abode.
Guest workers may come into the country either to take employment in a job, or simply to engage in business while remaining an employee of a foreign firm.
There may or may not be an implied intention to transition from guest worker to immigrant and eventual citizenship, but that is not a requirement.
Whether immigrating or merely visiting, a document called a visa is required. The State Department has several categories for visas:
- Tourism, visit
- Study, exchange
Undocumented or illegal immigrants are an unresolved social, legal, and government issue. Arguments can be made on all sides as to what their true status should be, with a current focus on the possibility of providing a pathway to citizenship despite their lack of proper, official documentation.
Some immigrants come here as the result of calm, reflective thought and decision as to whether they specifically want to make America their home and would have been otherwise content to remain in their former abode, but others are more anxiously urgent to come to America as a refuge from extreme turmoil in their former abode.
Reasons for people becoming refugees include:
- Natural disasters
- Economic depression
- Social repression and discrimination, social persecution
- Political repression and political threat to their well-being, political persecution
- General social upheaval
Statutory law defines the requirements for refugee status and asylum. Generally, political and social persecution are the only grounds for refugee status in the U.S. Economic difficulty, natural disaster, and even outright war are insufficient grounds unless political or social persecution can be shown.
U.S. statutory law comports with international law on defining refugees, namely the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which recognized these categories of persecution:
- Membership in a particular social group
- Political opinion
Subsets of countries have adopted supplements to that 1951 definition, but the United States has not deviated from the 1951 definition. Those supplements essentially add general fear for safety, public disorder and human rights violations, beyond strict persecution per se.
From a practical perspective, Congress and the executive branch can grant exceptions, but these are effectively simply loopholes in immigration quotas rather than refugee status per se.
Generally, a refugee becomes an immigrant with an intention to stay and become a naturalized citizen, rather than simply temporarily seeking refuge with the intent to eventually return to their former abode.
Diplomacy and international relations
Relations between countries, international relations, are managed via diplomacy and diplomatic affairs. There are protocols for each of the many forms of interactions between countries. The simplest are arrangements for common business transactions and travel between countries. Visits and interactions between corresponding officials of the countries are the common forms of diplomacy. Consultations during times of stress are among the most important form of diplomacy, attempting to resolve differences without resorting to more draconian measures.
Human rights record
Each country has a reputation for the extent to which they both formally recognize and actually respect human rights. This reputation is publicly known as their human rights record, and also includes public knowledge of any human rights abuses within that country.
The U.S. generally has a sterling human rights record except for capital punishment, gun violence, police shootings, and race relations.
The essence of government is to assure that somebody somewhere is responsible for all aspects of society that individuals, their families, their communities, and businesses and other organizations depend on in their daily lives, and in emergency situations as well.
Each organizational unit of government will have a charter spelling out its responsibilities.
Inevitably there will be gaps in responsibilities, either intended or unintended. Government is not intended to be responsible for all aspects of society, but there is ongoing dissent and debate as to exactly what the roles and responsibilities really are — where the lines are, how bright the lines are, which areas are intentionally gray, and how responsible government itself expects the public to be.
Each disaster or scandal brings with it a renewed debate on governmental responsibilities.
Scapegoats and witch hunts
Regardless of how clear governmental responsibilities are, there will be times when there is confusion about precisely who is responsible. Ultimately, the public will remain unsatisfied until responsibility can be assigned for every incident or issue.
Finger pointing is a traditional technique for assigning responsibility for some undesirable outcome. The person or governmental unit whom people are pointing to may or may not be the most properly responsible party.
Scapegoats are parties that are assigned blame more for the expedience of assigning blame than for their actual culpability.
A witch hunt is the unreasonable process of searching and struggling to find scapegoats. They are most commonly the exact opposite of an unbiased, methodical, formal investigation, but they can also be performed under the auspices of what otherwise publicly appears to be a formal, official investigation.
Modern governments are supposed to focus on a combination of the will of the people and merit and technical competence, but human nature being what it is, it is not uncommon for individuals and vendors to be selected based on who knows who rather than who knows what.
Technically, patronage should be illegal, but as the saying goes in Washington, the real scandal is not what is illegal, but what is legal.
Government officials occasionally fail to perform their duties in a fully professional manner not because of intent or simple negligence but because they simply lack the technical competence needed to perform those duties. No law is broken and there is no overt corruption. There is an aphorism known as Hanlon’s razor which goes something like “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.”
Misconduct is when government officials willfully and intentionally fail to perform their duties in a fully professional manner. The misconduct may only occasionally rise to the level of criminal behavior, but is certainly grounds for dismissal, demotion, or other correctional action.
One would expect most modern governments to be free from corruption, but sadly that is not the truth.
Outright bribery is clearly illegal and fortunately is less common in recent decades.
Most modern political corruption is more about influence peddling short of outright bribery. Friends helping friends, a favor today in exchange for the prospect of a return favor in the future, that sort of thing.
Modern political corruption frequently involves more of a nod and a wink than an explicit promise of a clear-cut quid quo pro.
Individuals moving between the public and private sectors is another indirect form of political corruption. Commonly, a government official may make decisions favoring a business which they may seek to work for or with upon leaving office. Of maybe a friend, colleague, or relative gets the benefit from the same biased action by the government official.
Outright criminal activity and outright corruption are clearly covered by the law, but scandalous behavior by government officials can sometimes skirt the law or flout the law.
In some cases it may be clear that a criminal violation has occurred, but obtaining a conviction can sustain appeal may not be possible.
In some cases the violation may be more of a moral, ethical violation, or a violation of social norms, even if the alleged, reprehensible behavior may not be sufficient for removal from office.
In some cases removal may simply be a reduction in responsibility, authority, or title even if the official is technically permitted to stay in office.
In some cases the mere act of public shaming may be sufficient punishment and a sufficient deterrent to future misbehavior, at least in theory. Or at least it may be the most severe retribution available for practical reasons.
The unsettled question is what level of scandalous behavior is normal and must simply be tolerated in a free and open society where not everyone agrees on exactly what the norm really is or really should be.
Ethical beliefs and standards of conduct are a general issue in society as a whole, but are especially important in government since so many people are so dependent on government. Standards of conduct in government come on five fronts:
- Ethical standards that individuals bring with them from their own lives, their families, and their communities.
- Professional ethical standards for the career profession of the individual.
- General ethical standards for society as a whole, reinforced by families, religious institutions, schools, and communities, as well as civil society.
- Tailored ethical standards and practices for the specific area of government.
- The thorny problem of dealing with foreign officials whose ethical standards may be significantly mismatched with our own.
Conflict of interest
An ongoing problem in government is officials and staff acting with conflicts of interest, meaning that they, relatives, friends, or entities that they may seek favors from in the future have something to gain if they decide or act in a certain way, as opposed to simply deciding and acting solely on the merits of the matter before them. These are not situations where the official specifically sought out a situation with a conflict, which would be a more clear case of corruption, but situations where it merely happened to align with their interests as a result of the independent choices of other officials or an act of Congress, or where there was no other choice.
There are an escalating series of levels in conflict of interest:
- Perceived conflict of interest
- Potential conflict of interest
- Possible conflict of interest
- Actual conflict of interest
- Action in self-interest
Food is a special category of good since it is such an essential requirement for human life with little room for discretion. The private sector generally does a reasonable job of producing food. Government gets involved in a variety of ways, such as:
- Aid during droughts
- Water management
- Price subsidy, when needed
- Paying farmers not to grow when there is a glut
- Promotion of better techniques and technologies
- Food safety regulation
- Nutrition recommendations
Water is another special category of good and service since it is an absolute essential requirement for life, both for people and for the plant and animal life needed by society.
Water is everywhere, but not always exactly where you need it at any given moment. Some areas may be in drought while others are in flood conditions. Some areas may be desert or near-desert conditions while others have excess rainfall. Capture, treatment, and distribution of water is a key function of society.
Energy is another special category of good or service since it is such an essential requirement for modern life. The private sector does a reasonable job of producing energy, primarily electric energy and fuels used to produce energy. Government gets involved in a variety of ways, such as:
- Research and development of new energy sources.
- Advocacy for energy conservation.
- Promotion of better techniques and technologies.
- Regulation, especially for consumer pricing.
- Actual production in special situations, such as TVA and Bonneville Power Administration.
Housing is another of the special categories of goods and services that are an essential requirement for modern life. Once again, the private sector does a reasonable job of producing homes for people, whether houses or apartments or other group settings. Government gets involved in various ways, such as:
- Regulation and setting standards for building construction.
- Subsidy for low-income families.
- Public housing for low-income families.
- Mortgage financing to supplement the private sector.
Redistribution refers to social programs of government taking a fraction of income or wealth from individuals and distributing that money to more needy individuals, either as cash, credit, or free services available only to those in their category of need.
Although redistribution has the effect of reducing inequality in society, the real, intended effect is simply to assure that basic goods and services are available to everyone.
Both the general concept and specific policies are a matter of ongoing debate within society. Some don’t believe in it at all. Some seek a lot more of it. Some simply wish to adjust the balance modestly to moderately.
Insurance can be thought of as a redistribution as well.
Limits of government
This is no clear consensus as to where the limits really are for government. Valid questions include:
- What are the proper roles of government? Who should decide?
- How far can government go?
- How large can government grow?
- What is the optimal size of government?
- Should government be larger, broader, or deeper?
- Should current government be expanded?
- Can current government be expanded?
- Should government include all aspects of society?
- Should more federal power be delegated to the states?
- Should the federal government assume more state powers?
- How much surveillance can the government engage in, when, and with what controls?
- How secure should the borders be?
- How open or closed should immigration be?
Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of modern, western-style countries, recognized by government as a right.
Although a country or region may have a dominant or even a state religion, the emphasis remains on freedom of religion.
Values of the dominant religion may find their way into the culture and values of social as a whole and government itself, or possibly simply overlap to some degree.
Ultimately, the role of government in religion is primarily to acknowledge and respect the right to worship and practice the religion of one’s choice.
Religion is described in more detail in the paper on Elements of Society.
A separate paper will delve into civil society and its role in both government and society overall.
Whether to consider civil society as the totality of an ideal society or all non-governmental aspects of society, or that only a subset of non-governmental organizations should be considered as civil society organizations (CSO) is a matter of debate. For example, are all labor unions CSOs, by definition? Organized religions and churches? Political parties? Special interest groups? Or, is it only non-establishment, nonprofit groups which can lay claim to the label of civil society? The paper on Elements of Civil Society will explore the matter in detail.
A nongovernmental organization (NGO) is technically any organization that is not directly affiliated with government, but the common use is to refer to voluntary, nonprofit organizations that advocate with government, particularly for changes in government policies or to advocate for the interests of underserved segments of society.
The term is also more loosely applied to service organizations in general.
NGOs are a core component of civil society. The separate paper on Elements of Civil Society will explore NGOs in more detail.
Thankfully, one of the hallmarks of modern, western-style democracies is their lack of strict authoritarian control. There may be a dominant party for extended periods, but frequent elections and constant power plays, coupled with term limits, virtually assure a constant turnover in personal power.
Even in the best of modern, western-style democracies there can be a distinct lack of unity and tendency for many people to gather at one or the other of extremes. Thankfully, these frequent bouts of extreme polarization tend to fade away as demographics shift, people age, young people flow into the system, and pressures that may have forced the polarization in the first place moderate, but even so, as rapidly as one polarizing influence declines, another begins to rise. Polarization remains an ongoing problem in government, possibly a permanent feature.
Ideology is simply a belief system. Everybody has one. Or to be more accurate, everybody participates in any number of belief systems. An ideology may be rather mild and tame, or it may have a strict and fiercely dogmatic character, or anywhere on that spectrum. Belief in an ideology is rarely a problem per se, but an extreme and strident obsession with an ideology, known as being an ideologue, can be quite problematic.
The rights of freedom of speech, association, and assembly can be misused by ideologues, and in fact cause difficulties in government, but they do tend to be transient and self-correcting in nature as people quickly see the consequences and recoil in alarm, horror, or sometimes simply amusement at their folly.
Unfortunately, there is always the risk that an ideologue will gain traction and align with some enduring economic, political, or social issue that makes their displacement problematic for an extended period of time. Fortunately, this has not happened in America — yet, maybe because the economic, political, and social spheres are so dynamic.
Integration and common ground are hallmarks of modern, western-style government, while tribalism is a throwback to more primitive societies. Communities and families are important in modern society, but the basic idea is that before the law and government all communities and families are equals, not that one is better than another or that one’s own community or family that should have special treatment or power in government.
Individual political paries or factions may exhibit aspects of tribalism even in the most advanced and sophisticated of modern, western-style governments, but taken to the extreme that is evidence of dysfunction rather than a positive norm value in modern government.
As with tribalism, extreme nationalism is evidence of dysfunction rather than a positive norm in modern government. Each country has its own particular society and sense of pride, and some may be better than others in various ways, but the global order is based on all countries, peoples, societies, and governments being treated and treating each other as equals rather than individual countries or societies believing and acting as though they are superior to all the rest.
Human nature leads people to be simultaneously hospitable to and wary of strangers, people who are different, from a different culture, country, or society. Some amount of wariness is frequently warranted, but taken to the extreme, intense or irrational fear, dislike, and loathing of people from other countries — xenophobia — are dysfunctional and certainly not a positive norm in modern, western-style society and have no place in the policies of their governments.
Most of government concerns unexceptional day to day activities. Many conflicts are normal and to be expected and have established processes baked into the nominal organizational structure. But on occasion some event or condition occurs that is so way out of normal that established governmental processes are not able to cope with the situation. These are crises.
Categories of crises include:
- Exceptional natural disaster
- Exceptional financial scandal
- Exceptional economic malaise
- Invasion, war
- Exceptional disease outbreak
- Pervasive criminal activity
- Exceptional social upheaval
- Exceptional conflict between levels or branches of government
It is in such crises that a decent government really shines. The lead officials pull together the necessary technical experts, develop a plan of attack, and execute on that plan. Relief may not come overnight, but with the combination of a solid but flexible plan, sufficient resources, time, dogged perseverance, and a deeply resolved commitment, most crises can be dependably resolved.
Nonetheless, any proposed changes to government require careful thought and attention to how the change will impact the ability of government to cope with the wide range of potential crises which can reasonably be expected to occur, based on the history of the country to date plus reasonable extrapolations based on evolution of technologies and attitudes in the political, economic, and social spheres.
Government may become involved in international efforts to maintain peace in regions of outright or potential conflict. This may involve sending the country’s own troops in on a peacekeeping mission, or it may involve seeking and arranging for one or more third party countries to provide neutral troops to keep the peace.
The primary goals of a peacekeeping mission are to establish a buffer between combatants and to establish a sense of calm to replace a sense of hostility.
A sanction is the penalty that is threatened for a violation of a law, regulation or rule. The purpose of the sanction or penalty is both to punish the offender for the offense and as a deterrent to discourage others from violating the law, regulation, or rule elsewhere or in the future.
Sanctions may also be imposed at the international level to retaliate against a country for actions it has taken that disturb order in the world.
One problematic aspect of security is surveillance. Modern, western-style democracy places a high value on the right to privacy. Modern, intrusive surveillance is increasingly bumping up against privacy.
Government has a legitimate role in deterring and detecting severe threats to the security of members of society, including government itself.
Some security threats such as terrorism have such an extreme potential impact that preemptive surveillance and action are warranted. Unfortunately, this risks invasion of privacy. It is a tough trade-off that will require a constant re-balancing as time goes by, technology evolves, and attitudes towards both security and privacy evolve.
Methods of surveillance include:
- Visual observation
- Video cameras
- Traffic cameras
- Wire taps of phones
- Monitoring email traffic
- Sifting through trash
- Thermal imaging of residential areas
- Data mining
The point of elaborating the elements of government to this level of detail is to identify the many touch points that civil society, as well as business, other nongovernmental organizations, and the people in general, can have for interacting with and influencing the decisions, policies, operations, and actions of government. Their government.