Clearly they are not, in fact, risk-free (Argentina proved this). But government bonds are nonetheless viewed as the sole risk-free asset, and banks are required to hold certain amounts of them in their portfolios. The risk-free (read: government) rate is also the basis for valuing almost all assets.
Whether this should be the case is a question posed today by Michael Gordon, former CIO of Fidelity. He argues corporate bonds might be a safer bet; some corporate bonds, after all, come with an implicit government guarantee. (Perhaps corporate bonds could be split into regular and TBTF bonds.) If the view caught on, a revolution would lie ahead for markets, involving mass revaluations and financial remodelling.
But his argument assumes all types of bond issuer are equivalent financial actors. I’m not convinced of this. Read more