The Basics of Government

Government is the organization by which a people, state or community asserts authority and control over its actions. The term also describes the institutions that exercise that authority, usually in a hierarchical structure with distinct and independent branches of power. Governments are a necessary part of civilized society and exist at all levels, from local town hall to national congress. Government serves many purposes, including providing stability and goods and services for its citizens. The nature of a particular government determines the way it is organized, how much control it exercises over its citizens, and how much it taxes and raises money to pay for services.

Governments at the state and local level impose property, sales and income taxes to raise revenue for public services, such as education, police departments and roads. State and local governments draft budgets to determine how that revenue will be spent on these services. Governments are also responsible for protecting “public goods”—goods that all individuals may benefit from but that are in limited supply, such as fish in the sea or clean drinking water. Governments at the local and state level protect these goods by regulating their use, e.g., through zoning laws and building codes. Governments also provide valuable social services that improve the quality of life, such as providing public education and health care.

The word government comes from the Latin phrase gubernare, meaning to steer or govern a ship or vessel. Different forms of government include monarchy, oligarchy, democracy (direct or representative), communism and autocracy. The United States government is a republic, where sovereignty is divided between the central government and its member states.

Most governments are structured as a hierarchy with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The structure of each branch varies by country and government. Legislative branches make laws and pass measures to fund programs, such as drafting tax bills. The executive branch carries out the laws passed by the legislative and judicial branches, such as signing legislation into law and appointing agency heads. The judicial branch evaluates laws and legal disputes, and it interprets the Constitution and other federal law. The judicial branch can overturn unconstitutional laws through the process of a veto or impeachment.

The judicial branch also evaluates the constitutionality of federal laws passed by Congress and the President, as well as evaluating lawsuits against state and local governments. This system of checks and balances ensures that each branch of the government is not too powerful or overstepping its bounds. Moreover, it prevents political opponents from forming a coalition against one or more branches of the government.