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What is government for?

In the aftermath of the referendum, it does no harm to take a step back from the present febrile mood. Conveniently, there was this piece asking “What are governments for?

I came across this about forty years ago.


  1. To defend the realm.
  2. To apply justice (which is not the same thing as endlessly passing laws)
  3. To make land available to the people (so that everyone has the means to provide themselves with the means to support themselves and their families. This includes the provision of infrastructure and the wider management of the landscape in a sustainable way)
  4. To deal with emergencies.
  5. To collect the rental value of land (to pay for 1-4 above. The provision of 1-4 is what gives land its value. It needs to be collected in accordance with the first of Adam Smith’s Canons of Taxation, “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.” This can be identified with the rental value of land, which arises from the presence and activities of government)

These are points to keep in mind as events unfold over the next few months. I think some of them originate in Leon Maclaren’s book “The Nature of Society“, the text of a lecture given in 1953. It is available to read on line but there seems to be something wrong with the web site. In times which are going to become increasingly turbulent it would do no harm to have a proper hard copy and read it through.