Laws: A Major Contribution of Government

From the lecture series: Democracy and Its Alternatives

By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College

It’s fashionable nowadays to beat up on government, and to criticize it for being inefficient and unresponsive. But take a minute to think about how inefficient human society would be if we didn’t have government institutions to enforce contracts, to resolve disputes, to put out fires, or to protect us from our decidedly unangelic neighbors.

Ten Commandment tablets among pots of flowers.
The law was so important to the ancient Israelites that when they received the Ten Commandments, they carried them around the desert for 40 years, and built a temple to put them in. (Image: Glenda/Shutterstock)

Governments Provide Laws

Law is the most important public good that governments provide. In fact, we usually think about laws as things that prevent us from doing things: “Don’t walk on the grass”. “Don’t drive more than 55 mph”. But the fact of the matter is that, because a public good like the law applies to everyone, laws enable us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

If we all trust the government to do its job, we don’t have to trust each other.

That’s another reason it’s important for law to be consistent, predictable, and evenly applied. It’s hard to see how the modern economy would work if it wasn’t.

More Persistent, Permanent

Even the word law suggests a certain kind of permanence differentiating it from something like a decree, which may be more subject to change. If you look at where the word comes from, a decree is really just something that’s said. (If you speak Spanish, you know that decir means “to say”.)

On the other hand, words like law and legal and legitimate share a root with the word legible, which means “readable”. And for something to be readable, it has to be written down.

That difference is important. In the old days, when a dictator decreed something, there was nothing that prevented him from changing his mind and dictating something else the next day. But writing something down (and in the old days, this often meant etching it in stone!) meant that people could rely on the ruling having a certain permanence. And this, in turn, allowed people to think long-term, to invest, and to plan for the future.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Written Laws Are Important

Law itself was such an important innovation that it’s no mystery that you see replicas of Hammurabi’s code posted in universities—and especially in law schools—all over the world. The law was so important to the ancient Israelites that when they received the Ten Commandments, they schlepped them around the desert for 40 years, and built a temple to put them in.

Written laws are clearly more than just ordinary rules. They’re institutionalized responses to recurring issues that societies face. And that makes them important public goods, because they provide us with the ability and the predictability necessary to live in large groups.

The Various Functions of Governments

All governments make decisions for the societies they govern. And they do so by establishing laws—institutionalized policies, procedures, and regulations that limit what we can do, but in so doing, allow us to do more than we ever could on our own.

But just writing the law down isn’t enough. For laws to matter, they have to be enforced. And no matter how clearly the law’s been written, there are always going to be situations where it’s unclear and we’re not sure how it should be applied.

In other words, to be effective, all governments have to perform legislative, executive, and judicial functions. They have to write (or legislate), they have to enforce (or execute) the law, and they have to make judgments about it.

In some countries (including the United States), these functions are separated among three arms or branches of government. That’s what we mean by the separation of powers.

Separation of Powers

The legislative branch writes the law; it makes the law readable. Writing law down gives it a certain (if imperfect) permanence, and this allows all of us to set expectations and to plan ahead—things without which modern-day society would be impossible.

Image of Lady Justice statue with the US flag in the background
The judicial branch inserts judgment into situations where the law is ambiguous. (Image: Ungvar/Shutterstock)

The executive branch executes (or implements) the law. It does this by enforcing the law—establishing punishments for those who don’t follow it. Theoretically, this ensures that the law is widely followed. And since the value of law comes from the fact that it allows us to establish expectations and plan ahead, this reasonable assurance that the law will be followed is another essential element of modern government.

Finally, no law can anticipate every conceivable situation. Even when we think that what the law says is pretty clear, there are always going to be situations where we’re not sure how it should be applied, or how the people who break the law should be punished. This is the role of the judicial branch. Law, by its nature, is abstract. The judicial branch makes it concrete. It inserts judgment into situations where the law is ambiguous, or where we’re not sure where or how or even if it applies to a particular situation.

How Governments Vary

Now, even though all governments have to do all three of these things, different countries divide up the responsibility in different ways.

In most parliamentary regimes, the prime minister and the other cabinet ministers are themselves members of the parliament. In places like the United Kingdom and Canada, the prime minister even represents an individual district in the country, just like their fellow parliamentarians.

In such examples, the executive and legislative functions are essentially collapsed into one branch, with the prime minister and cabinet being part of the legislature.

Contrast this with how things are done in the United States and other presidential regimes, where there’s a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches.

The fact that these functions are separated in some places and unified in others is one of the major ways that countries differ around the world.

Common Questions about Laws

Q: How is a decree different from a law?

The word law suggests a certain kind of permanence differentiating it from something like a decree, which may be more subject to change. On the other hand, words like law and legal and legitimate share a root with the word legible, which means “readable”. And for something to be readable, it has to be written down.

Q: What are the functions of a government?

All governments have to perform legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

Q: What roles do the different branches of government perform?

The legislative branch of government writes the law; it makes the law readable. The executive branch executes (or implements) the law. The judicial branch makes the law concrete. It inserts judgment into situations where the law is ambiguous, or where we’re not sure where or how or even if it applies to a particular situation.

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