As far as I understand, the ancient concept of government, as stated, for example, by Cicero, revolves around the enforcement of the law, enacting a just law, and obedience to the law. For example, a quotation from Cicero:

You understand, then, that the function of a magistrate is to govern, and to give commands which are just and beneficial and in conformity with the law. For as the laws govern the magistrate, so the magistrate governs the people, and it can truly be said that the magistrate is a speaking law, and the law a silent magistrate.

De Legibus

I am sure that other writers such as Plato and Aristotle talk along that line as well.

However, in the present day, the concept of government is more than just about "the law". Indeed, a modern government has judicial and legislative functions, which is similar to, "magistrate" that Cicero mentioned. Nevertheless, the executive usually also functions like a giant corporation that manages utilities, infrastructure, pension fund, currency rates, etc.

It seems to me that there is a gap between the two concepts. So, my questions are: First, when did the concept of government become more than just about "the law"? Secondly, why did the concept change?


It hasn't, I don't think you're reading this right. Comparing Cicero's concept of government to America's separate but equal branches concept, there is a one to one relationship: Executive (Enforces the Laws), Legislative (writes the laws), and Judicial (enforces obedience of the laws... this one is a stretch but bear with me).

Essentially, Cicero is saying that in government, you must have someone who writes just laws... but since laws don't actually stop people from doing things, you need someone to be able to stop the people from doing the things that are now illegal. Finally, you need someone to keep the other two parties obedient (interpreting the laws to determine if the citizen was actually not allowed to do the thing and must repay society OR the citizen was allowed to do the thing and the government was wrong to stop him and must repay the citizen for the effort.).

Laws are often used to authorize the government to pay for things... like building a park, or raising a military, or feeding the poor. Again, someone must write the law saying that someone enforcing the law can take this amount of value from the coffers, and someone must settle the dispute between the first two when the law writer accuses the law enforcer of taking too much from the coffers to raise a military, when the law says they were supposed to build a park.

Governments can put these three powers into the same institution. Prime Ministers are law makers that the law makers authorize to make sure the laws are enforced. Dictatorships put all three powers in one person who can make rules, enforce rules, and decide if the rule was applied correctly.


In the United States, this changed in the twentieth century. Prior to the twentieth century, most government revenue was from tariffs on luxury goods (because luxury goods were the only goods imported). This money was not enough to run a modern government with a welfare state. (For our purposes here, a "welfare" state is one where people expect the government to provide for their welfare, e.g. with free education, health care, unemployment and retirement benefits, etc.).

In the US, a permanent (as opposed to temporary for the duration of a war) income tax was instituted in the twentieth century (1913). This allowed for a system of unemployment and retirement benefits to be instituted in the 1930s. Later, health care benefits were added for the poor and retired in the 1960s. There are also free education programs, although a great deal of education spending is provided by the states and localities rather than at the federal level.

I am less familiar with other countries, but it is my understanding that this happened in a similar time frame elsewhere. In some places, it may have started in the nineteenth century. In some countries, e.g. those in Scandinavia, the welfare state is considerably larger than in the US.

Prior to the nineteenth century, it was common for countries to be run by monarchs. Monarchs have different incentives than elected officials. Modernly most first world countries (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and those in Europe and North America) have democratic governments (possibly constitutional monarchies). Democratic governments have tended to involve more spending than classical governments with their limited tax bases. So modern governments spend more time on budgeting relative to law than classic governments.

The US was designed as a classical government in the eighteenth century. Its divided powers and checks and balances mostly deal with legal issues. They have also eroded, as Congress has delegated legislative powers (e.g. regulations) to the executive and weakened the executive's impoundment power (traditionally presidents did not have to spend if they disagreed with the need).

  • Any reference for further reading about the design of US government as "classical government" and its transition to welfare state?
    – hans-t
    Mar 8 '19 at 17:22

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