What is the Point of Government?

Last Updated Apr 12, 2010 6:03 AM EDT

General elections spawn a surfeit of pontificating politicians, which in turn generates a tidal wave of cynicism from the public, along the lines of "they are all the same and they are all in it for themselves". It raises the obvious question: "what is the point of government?"

How you answer will determine whether you vote, and for whom.

To see what government is all about, it helps to see what happens when you don't have a government. I've spent time with some with refugees from Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 15 years. The number one thing they want from any government is the rule of law: if you cannot walk down the street safely, you become very grateful to any warlord, thug or religious militia to guarantee your safety (at a price). And without the rule of law, business is impossible: you cannot enforce contracts without goodwill or a Kalashnikov.

Beyond the rule of law they want water, health and education. In that order. Try living without water for a week -- see how long the rule of law lasts. Water counts. Health and education are relative luxuries.
In the rural, tribal areas I've ask the same question: what do you want from government? Again, the rule of law is the number one request. Beyond that, they reverse the urban priorities. The top priority is investing in the next generation: education. Health and water are relative luxuries because they can access their own local remedies and local sources of water.

All of this would delight 18th century Enlightenment thinkers who saw the prime role of government as being the rule of law. In 1776 Thomas Paine made the revolutionary point: "in America, the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king"

Note what is absent from the wish list: pensions, social security, regulations about the size of bananas, subsidies for the Olympics, businesses and other worthy causes. These are, relatively speaking, bourgeois luxuries which we enjoy.

Business wants what the Somali refugees, Thomas Paine and the tribal elders all want: the rule of law and stability.

Pretty much everything else is either wasted subsidy, pointless interference or damaging regulation. So how much does the UK government spend on its primary obligation to its citizens? Just 2.5 percent of its total budget. So where does the other 97.5 percent go to: duck houses?

(Pic: ctsnow cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership