Governments: Why Do People Need Them?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

Throughout history, scholars and philosophers have developed different reasons regarding the importance of governments. So, why are governments necessary? What helps them function well? Read on to know the answers.

Image of slips of paper lying over each other, with 'Government' written on the one at top, and words like 'Economy' and 'Law Enforcement' written on those in the back.
A government is a person or body that has authority over land and people. (Image: travellight/Shutterstock)

When learning about governments, people raise a fundamental question: Why are governments needed at all?  Throughout history, scholars and philosophers have developed different answers to this question. Prominent among the philosophers were the following three: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume.

Thomas Hobbes

Image of Thomas Hobbes.
According to Thomas Hobbes, the purpose of government was to maintain order. (Image: Anonymous/Public domain)

Back in the mid-1600s, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the purpose of government is to maintain order.

Without government, Hobbes argued, humans would exist in what he called a “state of nature” where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  That is, without some form of collective action and order, humans would resort to violence as they fight for resources.

In order to avoid or control this state of nature, Hobbes said that people engage in a sort of social contract with their rulers. They agree to give up power to a sovereign and in exchange agree not to be violent. The sovereign accepts this power and in exchange agrees to be just in enforcing laws.

Learn more about the history of federalism in the United States.

John Locke

Image of John Locke.
For John Locke, the purpose of a government was to protect the property rights of individuals. (Image: Godfrey Kneller/Public domain)

In the late-1600s, the philosopher John Locke built upon the Hobbesian idea of a social contract between the people and those who rule them.

Locke argued all humans have a natural right to “life, liberty, and property”, with the ability to own property an essential part of being human and having liberties.

He argued that the purpose of government is to protect the property rights of individuals.

David Hume

David Hume, who wrote in the 1700s, relied on the concept of a “public good” to explain the purpose of government. He used the term ‘good’ in its economic sense where good is a physical thing having two particular features.

Image of David Hume.
David Hume said the purpose of government was to provide public goods. (Image: Allan Ramsay/Public domain)

First, a public good is “non-excludable”—meaning once it exists, no one can be excluded from participating or enjoying the thing.

Second, a public good is “non-rival” in how it is consumed. This means that the amount of the good doesn’t diminish the more it is consumed.

For Hume, the primary purpose of government is to provide public goods, since these are things that require groups of people to create, for the benefit of everyone involved.

Learn more about how a congressional bill originates.

Public Goods

One example of a public good is the air that people breathe. Once clean, breathable air exists, no one particular person can be excluded from enjoying it. Furthermore, one person’s consumption of air does not diminish the amount of air that is available for others to consume.

Other examples are things like security, healthcare, clean water, and education.

Hume showed that when people desire public goods, they are faced with a kind of dilemma. Once the public good exists, no one has any incentive to contribute to it as it is non-excludable. When every individual thinks like this, no one contributes anymore, and there is the risk of the elimination of the good itself.

This dilemma forms the basis of collective action theory, a powerful tool that can explain much of what goes on in politics and government today.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Taxes and Incentives

So, how can people create public goods that are desirable for the functioning of society when no individual has an incentive to contribute to them?

Image of a hand holding a gasoline nozzle and filling fuel in a car.
The state and federal taxes on gasoline support the public good of an interstate highway system. (Image: Nithid Memanee/Shutterstock)

This dilemma can be answered by looking at some public goods that already exist. For example, in the case of the public good of an interstate highway system, most of the money comes from state and federal taxes on gasoline.

When someone purchases gas, they have been coerced into supporting the national Highway Trust Fund, which helps support the roads and bridges.

There is really no way to avoid paying the tax since it’s built into the price of a heavily controlled and regulated product—gasoline. So, there’s one way to create a public good—through mandatory taxes.

Another example is of public radio. National Public Radio began as a government program, though now it’s funded in part by listeners. It’s a public good, carried on the airways whether one has contributed to it or not.

A couple of times a year, NPR runs fundraising drives to raise money, but there’s no cost for not contributing. It tries to entice people to contribute by offering goodies. These items are called selective incentives because they entice people to contribute to a public good.

So, public goods present a collective action dilemma that can be solved in a variety of ways: taxes, fees, incentives, or threats. All these things can be described as institutions. Generally speaking, institutions are rules. The rules help shape human behavior by providing incentives and thereby create governmental or political outcomes.

Learn more about the equal protection clause.


Politics is often considered a dirty word. People often equate it with corruption and inefficiency, or as a process that puts barriers in people’s way. But these barriers can also be thought of as a positive thing.

The famous political scientist Harold Lasswell defined politics as the process by which people determine “who gets what, when, and how”.

There are other ways one might define politics, but most definitions emphasize that, while politics may involve conflict or cooperation, it is a process typically aimed at solving a problem.

Politics is simply the process that is used when people disagree on things, or have different views, or need access to different resources. The challenges involved with politics can be great. People may often disagree on how to define a problem, or who should solve it, or how it should be solved.

Political Science

The field of political science helps explain how politics and government work. Political science is like any science in that it is a field of study that seeks to answer questions using systematic, objective evidence and processes. In politics, people are studied—as individuals or groups—through data analysis, experiments, statistics, game theory, ethnography, and history to help political scientists understand why political animals behave the way they do.

The goal of political science is not to tell which policy might be best to reach a particular goal, or which candidate one should vote for. Rather the goal is to offer explanations about how things work.

Common Questions about the Importance of Governments

Q: According to Thomas Hobbes, what is the purpose of government?

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the purpose of a government was to maintain order.

Q: According to David Hume, what are the two features of public goods?

According to David Hume, the two features of public goods were: “non-excludable” and “non-rival”.

Q: How can the collective action dilemma regarding public goods be solved?

The collective action dilemma regarding public goods can be solved in a variety of ways: through taxes, fees, incentives, or threats.

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