Sri Lanka

(This simplified version of the second chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, published by Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, in 2005, may be interesting in view of current concerns about the size of the Cabinet)

In countries like Sri Lanka which were under British rule, there is a sense that the powers of government are unlimited. This also applies to the functions of government, that is the things that a government should do. Under the colonial system, absolute power belonged to a foreign country, and the representatives of that country who governed were not accountable to the people of the country that was governed. The idea that the people are superior to the government, and that the functions of government should be limited to those people want, was not part of the colonial system.

Such a view of government, that it is superior to the people, has been reinforced in modern times by the manner in which communist governments developed. These emerged in the twentieth century as the main opponents of capitalist systems. These words really refer to economic ideas rather than political ones. However, since communism emerged first in countries where there had been absolute monarchies previously, it also developed as a political system that gave absolute power to the government. Karl Marx, who had initially developed communism as a social and economic theory, had believed that the state would wither away. But communist governments, having emerged first in almost feudal agricultural societies, reinforced the old model, also dominant in colonized countries, that the powers and functions of government were total.

The different types of government function

Earlier we saw how, as modern societies emerged with greater stress on the ownership of government by the people, measures were taken to limit the powers of a government that has authority at any particular period. Here we should consider what the functions of government are, in terms of what governments alone can do, what they can do in collaboration with other elements in society, and what they should not try to do at all.


The most important function of a government is to ensure the security of the people. Government in fact emerged for this purpose. Primitive societies chose as leaders those best capable of ensuring their safety. People accepted the domination of others within their own community to make sure that they were kept safe from threats from outside that community. In time, as concepts of property developed, people needed security from others within the community as well. Greater stress was laid on laws to govern relations internally, as well as measures to ensure defence against attacks from outside.

Thus amongst the most essential functions of government are those of external and internal security, and those of justice. Most countries therefore have, as amongst the most senior members of the cabinet, Ministers of Defence and of Justice. The former will look after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, though in some countries there is a separate Interior or Home Ministry for this purpose. The Ministry of Justice looks after the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the courts. Exceptionally, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet, and come under an independent Chief Justice. However, there too, there is in the Cabinet an Attorney General to ensure that the laws are implemented and prosecutions conducted in the courts against those suspected of criminal acts.

As societies developed however, it became clear that physical security alone was not enough. We use the term ‘security’ together with many other words,ie in phrases such as ‘financial security’, ‘food security’ etc. Though the actual role of government in all these areas can be debated, clearly there are emergency situations when everyone would agree that government should act. For instance, people have certain essential needs. While in general they may be expected to fulfil those needs themselves, when this proves impossible government clearly needs to step in. With regard to food security for instance, while debates may be conducted about the actual role of the government in ensuring food needs are met, everyone would agree that, in a time of famine, government has to step in. Similarly, health is an area where government intervention can contribute to security that is necessary for society as a whole.

These are areas however where government may only have to play a facilitatory or helping role, with other elements in society contributing to greater or lesser extents. We should look at these later then, in terms of the facilitatory role of government. However there is another important area in which people require security that can only be provided by government, and where government has to be wholly responsible.

This is the area of financial security, which is why amongst the most important members of any Cabinet is the Minister of Finance. He is responsible for the currency of a country, both its production and its value. This means that he has to ensure that the currency of a country remains stable, or depreciate in value so rapidly that people lose confidence in it. He also has to make sure that government raises enough money to fulfil its essential functions. So productivity and trade must be promoted so that income continues to be generated to meet people’s requirements. Increasingly, in the modern world, such needs are also met by borrowing, but the Finance Minister has to ensure that such borrowings are within limits and do not contribute to massive currency depreciation or bankruptcy.

Finally, there is another Ministry which is important because it contributes to both the security aspects noted above. Every country has a Foreign Minister, responsible for ensuring good relations with other countries so as to avoid physical threats. He must also develop ties that will promote economic cooperation. This involves a multiplicity of areas, such as goods and services and labour, that may involve other ministries, but the overall responsibility for good international relations generally belongs to one Minister, and that is why this portfolio is usually entrusted to someone very capable.

To sum up, then, the Security functions of government are amongst its most important, and require in any cabinet the following portfolios – Minister of Defence, Minister of Justice (or Attorney General in addition to Courts), Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs.


Before the modern period, the above functions were seen as the essential duties of government. Of course government performed other functions too, but these were largely as a matter of personal commitment by particular rulers, or in times of emergency. They were not seen as central to the duties of a ruler.

With the development of modern society however, the role of government had to change. This can be seen most clearly with regard to health care, which is now seen as one of the most important functions of government. In early days, while some kings distinguished themselves by building hospitals, the management of these was often handed over to independent institutions, often religious bodies, and the responsibility was not usually considered that of the government itself.

With industrialization however, and rapid urbanization, health became a central concern. Epidemics had more disastrous consequences, and not only cure but also prevention became urgent necessities. Also, with the development of new techniques in health care that required much more capital investment, government hospitals became a necessity. So health became a vital function of government and a Minister of Health plays a vital role in any government now.

Similarly education too, which was of minimal importance to government before the modern era, is now of vital significance. Before the industrial revolution, when societies were largely agricultural, education was not essential for most people. Schools were generally run by religious orders, since they needed at least some learning in those who joined them.  Apart from that, learning was confined to the upper classes, who alone needed to read and write, and to the merchant classes who needed some capability in calculation.

All this changed with the industrial revolution. Not only was there need of skilled labour, for the technologies that developed, there was also need of white collar labour for the various services that went along with mass production. And as opportunities for social mobility developed, through access to such jobs as well as professions, the social need to provide such opportunities on a wider scale led to massive state involvement in education. England, for instance, set up Commissions on Education in the 19th century that led to the establishment of more universities as well as School Boards all over the country. And in the colonies too, as they entered into the modern economic system, education became a priority.

Other areas where state involvement in services became a necessity in the nineteenth century included transport and utilities such as water (and later electricity). Yet with regard to all these, and in particular health and education, the assumption was that government had to provide these to those who would otherwise be deprived. It was only in the twentieth century that the idea developed that some or all of these had to be government monopolies.

This has led in some instances to societies thinking that any non-governmental involvement in such areas is wrong. However, in general government monopolies lead to inefficiency and, since all decision makers are liable to make mistakes, disaster when there are errors of judgment. Once the principle is established, that involvement by private or religious or other non-governmental institutions or individuals is welcome, provided government does not neglect its core responsibilities, it becomes apparent that a better service may be available to everyone.

This can be seen for instance in the manner in which transport, which was a government monopoly in Sri Lanka for about twenty years, has improved rapidly since private bus services were permitted in the late seventies. Before that services were limited, investment was not available to improve equipment, and staffing was excessive due to politicization (which also led to poor discipline amongst employees).

At the same time, whilst privatization has helped on most routes, the state needs to be aware that certain routes which may be uneconomical should not be ignored. Through licensing fees, or other methods of obtaining revenue, the state needs to ensure that those who would otherwise be deprived of ready access to transport are not neglected.

Similar principles should be extended to the other services mentioned above, as well as areas such as housing. They could also be extended to the area of food security, not in terms of making sure that food supplies are readily available, which is another sort of responsibility, but in terms of providing what might be termed social security to those unable to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.

To sum up then, what might be termed the Service functions of government, providing essential services to those who could not otherwise obtain them, while encouraging and regulating the provision of such services by others too, require in any cabinet the following portfolios – Minister of Education, Minister of Health, Minister of Public Utilities, Minister of Transport, Minister of Housing, Minister of Social Security.

There is generally thought to be a sort of sliding scale with regard to the above. Social Security and Housing are not the responsibility of the state in general, and need only be provided for those without any capacity of their own. Transport and Public Utilities need to be generally provided, in particular the necessary infrastructure, but need not be subsidized except in cases of dire need, and the cost of supply should be met according to usage. As for Health and Education, direct government involvement is greater because of the scale of activity involved. However the involvement of others should be encouraged, provided nobody is deprived of high quality services because of a lack of resources.


A third area where increasing involvement of government became necessary after the industrial revolution and the emergence of the modern economic system is that of facilitating production and trade. In early days the main role of government in this respect was ensuring physical and financial security. However, even in those days there were requirements that could be met only by large scale activity, and for this purpose governmental involvement was essential.

Thus, going back to early Sri Lankan history, we find that a characteristic of a good ruler was infrastructural development for irrigation purposes. In modern times, apart from irrigation, which is still of vital importance, research to promote productivity and preservation, communications networks to promote distribution, even credit schemes to promote investment, are essential for the support of agriculture.

Similarly, industrial development requires even greater infrastructural support, including utilities on a large scale as well as specialized training. And for both agriculture and industry, there should be facilitation of trade, through financial assistance as well as improved international communications, including telecommunications where rapid modernization is vital.

Some of these areas overlap with those discussed earlier, but we should note an important distinction in that these activities are the responsibility of individuals and organizations, and government should not engage in such activities itself. Though, in statist systems, economic activity was undertaken by government, often in terms of monopolies, experience has shown that this does not lead to economic development. Without incentives for efficiency, or penalities for inadequacies, systems tend to become moribund or stale. Political interference leads often to overstaffing, and to indiscipline sometimes involving corruption that limits productivity.

The essential function of government in these areas is facilitation of activity, through provision of the infrastructure and the services essential for smooth functioning of these sectors. In some instances this might involve subsidies, but the provision of subsidies should be carefully monitored lest it contribute to continuing inefficiency. Nurturing a particular sector is a vital task of government at particular times, but this should be to strengthen it to stand on its own in time. If this is not feasible continuing subsidies are inappropriate in terms of the wider interests of society.

To sum up then, what might be termed the Facilitatory functions of government, which require careful planning and the development of measurable targets, require in any cabinet the following portfolios – Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Irrigation, Minister of Industries, Minister of Trade, Minister of Communications (including Roads and Railways and Harbours and Aviation), Minister of Telecommunications, Minister of Power and Energy.


Finally, in terms of government activity, increasingly important in the modern world is the Regulatory function of government. While most things are best left in the hands of people, it is essential to ensure a level playing field, to ensure that exploitation is avoided as far as is possible. Exploitation can be by businesses, by government, by special interests and by individuals. It is an essential function of government to provide protection to all citizens against such exploitation.

Amongst the most important areas in this regard is labour, since inevitably employees are under the control of their employers, and this can lead to exploitation. For this reason governments regulate working conditions, to ensure reasonable wages as well as job / financial security, and also permit unionization, to ensure that workers have representation when problems arise.

At the same time government should ensure that employees do not, through arbitrary actions, exploit employers to the point at which the functioning of the business, or of any enterprise, becomes impractical. There is also need to prevent monopolies with regard to unionization, so that industrial action is in accordance with wider interests, rather than particular political priorities. Employment regulations therefore must include provision for arbitration, and also the free exercise of choice amongst workers as to collective action.

Whilst labour regulations were initially amongst the most important functions of government in industrial society, the increasing power of business also requires effective legislation with regard to restricting monopolies and unfair trade practices. Consumer protection is therefore an essential function of government in the modern era. This requires health and safety regulations, as well as measures to ensure competition.

Another area of vital importance to contemporary society is Environmental Protection. Whilst the activities described above, in terms of Agriculture and Industry and Trade, and their facilitation, are essential in any society, given limitations on resources and the environmental impact of such activities, regulations to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable development are vital.

Of course regulations in most fields are necessary to maintain standards, and to ensure equitable distribution of resources, in particular those under the control of the government. But the areas discussed in this section are particularly vital for the protection of society in the broadest possible sense, and for this purpose any Cabinet should include the following portfolios – Minister of Labour, Minister of Consumer Affairs, and Minister of the Environment.

Social Concerns

In addition to the above, there are other areas where there may be a role for government. These are what might be termed social and cultural areas, in which certain outcomes may seem desirable. Many countries for instance have Ministries for the Media, for Sports, for Cultural Affairs and for Religious Affairs.

Whilst development of these areas is certainly desirable, the idea that they are the responsibility of the government is of very recent origin, and springs from the statist notion that limits the role and the responsibility of other elements in society. Ministers with final authority in such areas should be avoided, since these are areas where political control has generally prevented the freedom essential for the individual if there is to be continuous development, along with general understanding of the social responsibilities associated with these areas.

Regulation of course is another matter, and there is need of monitoring of the activities of the media, of sports bodies, of cultural performances and even of religious bodies. There is also a case for providing funding for activities in these areas, where provision of funding through other sources may be inadequate. But such funding should be provided through independent bodies constituted in a manner that ensures the active involvement of participants in the field, rather than through political decisions.

A clear example of what would be socially productive in these areas is provided by the media. In general it is now recognized that the media should be left to the private sector, albeit with regulations that ensure plurality as well as competition. However, in the context of social and educational concerns that may not be addressed by the private media, in most countries there is provision for public sector broadcasting and telecasting. To leave that to a Media Ministry however would be to invite partisan political involvement that would lose sight of the broader social concerns that should be addressed. In many countries therefore public sector broadcasting is through independent institutions that receive public funding in terms of the particular concerns that are specified in their mandate.

In order to ensure public interest activity in the above areas then, the ideal would be the creation of a Ministry for Cultural Affairs and Sports, which would regulate and monitor activities in these areas, and disburse funds as appropriate through institutions established in a manner that ensures their independence. Cultural Affairs could include Religious Affairs, but in this area in particular there should be provision to ensure religious independence and preclude state interference in the activities and organization of religious orders.

In short, in deciding on the functions of government, we should rely on the basic principle that government should be limited to what it has to do to ensure that citizens of a country can get on with their own lives and their work productively. Obviously, in the modern age, there is much more work for governments than in earlier societies, but this should not mean that government should undertake everything.

Too large a role for government, in addition to the excessive expense involved, would mean that it cannot do properly what it has to do. What it has to do, apart from ensuring security in every sense for its citizens, is to empower them through services to function effectively in society, and to facilitate their activities  through the provision of infrastructure and the enforcement of regulations that prevent exploitation. Government may also have a role to play in encouraging productive social and cultural activities, but this should be limited to encouragement without moving towards control.