What Should Governments Do for Us?

In thinking about U.S. style liberal, republican democracy, it is important to take a step back to consider the many things that governments around the world can do and have done, and the list of things that you personally might want your government to do.  This short learning module provides an overview of what most governments typically do, with links to comparative data around the world.

1.       Most governments have a military to defend their territory, police to keep order, and a judicial system to prosecute people who break the law. In some countries and times, government leaders stay in power by using the military, police, and judicial system to repress the poor or various religious, racial, or ethnic groups. (Haiti under President François Duvalier is a good example.) In other countries and times, the military focus only on national defense, the police protect citizens and their property from criminals, and the courts are used to settle disputes and weigh evidence in criminal cases in a competitive system framed by mutually understood rules.

U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy: James Griffen

2.       Most governments employ some form of diplomacy to advance their security and commercial interests.  They do this by establishing and staffing embassies around the world, by participating in regional and international bodies, and by using media to spread their messages. Those countries with the most trade (job opportunities for their citizens) are typically those with the most embassies.  In 2016, the U.S. had embassies in almost every country, closely followed by China. 

3.       Liberal republican governments use constitutional rights and laws to facilitate personal freedoms.  Governments are more repressive in other countries.  For example, people may not be free to speak their minds on political matters (Uzbekistan[1]); people may be told which religion to practice (Saudi Arabia[2]) or may be penalized from travelling outside their region (China[3]).

4.       Many governments use constitutional rights and laws to facilitate economic activities while minimizing harmful outcomes such as slavery, violent assault, cheating on commercial contracts, and pollution.  In some countries, people are told what they must grow or produce (Myanmar[4]), they may be prohibited from owning property (former communist countries), or the government may favor some business owners with subsidies while heavily taxing others.

  • Click here to too country rankings for ease of doing business by the World Bank Group.

Federal Highway System

Dietmar Rabich

5.       Most governments provide at least some public services. Many provide educational services: some to inculcate national ideology, some to build a productive workforce, and others to ensure that citizen voters are well-informed.  Most provide at least some health care services.  Most also provide at least some infrastructure such as drinking water, sewerage, roads, electricity, and networks for information-communications technology. Some governments aim to satisfy those with power first.  For example, in Nigeria, in 2016 there was a proposal to spend more on the state house clinic (that serves the president and other high officials) than would be spent on all the country’s teaching hospitals.[5]  Other governments use the budget as a form of welfare: as much as half of their budgets goes to civil service salary and benefits.  Yet, many governments have managed to extend good quality public services to most of their citizens. (See for example World Bank data on World Development Indicators such as water supplies and sanitation services.)

Science Makes Missile Defense Possible

Missile Defense Agency: Ben Listerman

6.       Many governments invest in science and technology. They do this to strengthen their military, make their private sector more competitive, improve health care, and improve their capacity to manage the natural world around them (weather forecasts for example).  In the U.S.A., federal research and development spending was 5% of discretionary spending or 0.76% of GDP in 2013. Government spending as a share of GDP in other countries that same year was 0.99% in South Korea, 0.83% in Germany, 0.60% in Japan, and 0.44% in China.[6]

7.       Some governments favor social protections for their citizens: maternity, paternity, unemployment compensation, disability payments, or social security retirement benefits.  The importance of retirement benefits varies of course with the elderly share of the population. Most of the low-income countries do not have such programs or have them only on paper.

  • Click here to explore the elderly share of populations around the world.

8.       Some governments seek to reduce the number of people living in poverty and the degree of inequality within their populations. They typically do this by trying to accelerate growth (China, India), by enacting regulations to protect workers from predation (Norway, Denmark, and Iceland stand out),[7] by requiring universal health care (62 countries in 2018)[8] and universal secondary education (most governments succeed on this one:  laggards include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Pakistan, and much of Africa)[9], through fiscal transfers to households (most of Europe), and by using progressive taxation (Australia, Denmark, and Belgium).[10]

  • Click here for country rankings of policies meant to reduce inequality (Oxfam, 2018).
  • Click here for a review of fiscal policy options for reducing poverty (IMF).

9.       Most governments try to maintain low inflation rates and low unemployment rates.  These objectives are often seen as necessary for social and political stability.  Reaching these economic goals requires attention to monetary and fiscal policies which, in turn, can constrain how many of the policy goals above a country can realistically expect to achieve. 

U.S. Federal Budget Deficit

10.     The monetary and fiscal trade-offs force us all to confront a question:  who gets to decide which policies to pursue and at what cost to the population? Can we trust them and can we trust the system?

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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
October 2019

This material is meant to be used only for civic education.
It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.
Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: Lawrence Jackson, whitehouse.gov/public domain


Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional-Executive Commission on China. (2005). China’s Household Registration System.

Freedom House (2018). Freedom in the World.

Institute for Economics and Peace.

International Monetary Fund.

Lowy Institute.

Oxfam (2018). The commitment to reducing inequality index.

Premium Times (Nigeria).


USAID (2017). Freedom to Farm.



World Bank, Doing Business.

World Bank, World Development Indicators.

World Justice Project.

End Notes

[1] Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/uzbekistan

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_religion_in_Saudi_Arabia

[3] Congressional-Executive Commission on China. (2005). Special Topic Paper: China’s Household Registration System: Sustained Reform Needed to Protect China’s Rural Migrants. https://www.cecc.gov/publications/issue-papers/cecc-special-topic-paper-chinas-household-registration-system-sustained

[4] See USAID (2017). Freedom to Farm: Agricultural Land Use, Crop Selection, Fallowing, and Proposed Changes to the Myanmar Farmland Law Necessary to Strengthen Land Tenure Security. https://www.land-links.org/research-publication/world-bank-2017-paper-freedom-farm-agricultural-land-use-crop-selection-fallowing-proposed-changes-myanmar-farmland-law-necessary-strengthen-land-tenure-security/

[5] See https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/197827-2016-budget-buhari-to-spend-more-on-state-house-clinic-than-on-all-federal-teaching-hospitals.html

[6] Data are from UNESCO, GERD as percent of GDP and GERD by source of funds.

[7] Oxfam (2018). The commitment to reducing inequality index. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/The_Commitment_to_Reducing_Inequality_Index_2018.pdf

[8] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_with_universal_health_care

[9] UNICEF data.

[10] Oxfam (2018).

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