Government is the institutional authority that rules a community of people. The primary purpose of government is to maintain order and stability so that people can live safely, productively, and happily. In a democracy, the source of a government’s authority is the people, the collective body of citizens by and for whom the government is established. The ultimate goal of government in a democracy is to protect individual rights to liberty within conditions of order and stability.
Every government exercises three main functions: making laws, executing or implementing laws, and interpreting and applying laws. These functions correspond to the legislative, executive, and judicial institutions and agencies of any government.
In an authentic democracy the government is constitutional and limited. A constitution of the people, written by their representatives and approved directly or indirectly by them, restrains or harnesses the powers of government to make sure they are used only to secure the freedom and common good of the people. There are at least five means to limit the powers of government through a well-constructed constitution.
First, the constitution can limit the government by enumerating or listing its powers. The government may not assume powers that are not listed or granted to it.
Second, the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government can be separated. Different individuals and agencies in the government have responsibility for different functions and are granted constitutional authority to check and balance the exercise of power by others in order to prevent any person or group from using its power abusively or despotically.
An independent judiciary that can declare null and void an act of the government it deems contrary to the constitution is an especially important means to prevent illegal use of power by any government official. The legislature can use its powers of investigation and oversight to prevent excessive or corrupt actions by executive officials and agencies.
Third, power can be decentralized throughout the society by some kind of federal system that enables the sharing of powers by national and local units of government. Widespread distribution of power to various individuals, groups, and institutions throughout a country can also be accomplished by constitutional protections of individuals’ rights to form and maintain the voluntary associations of civil society and the economic institutions of a free-market economy.
Fourth, the people can limit the power of government by holding their representatives accountable to them through periodic elections, which are conducted freely, fairly, and competitively according to provisions of the constitution. The people can also use their constitutionally protected rights of free speech, press, assembly, and association to mobilize force against abusive or irresponsible exercise of power by their government.
Fifth, a broad range of human rights can be included in the constitution, which the government is prohibited from denying to the people. In addition to such political rights as voting and expressing opinions through the media, the constitution can guarantee personal rights to private property, freedom of conscience, and so forth.
The existence of a written constitution does not always dignify the practice of constitutional and limited government. There were written constitutions in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but there was not constitutional government. Instead, there was arbitrary use of power as it suited the rulers, irrespective of the wishes of the people. Thus, only governments that usually, if not perfectly, function according to the terms of a constitution may be considered examples of constitutional and limited government.
By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)