The Role of Government

Governments play an important role in society. They are responsible for providing basic services that people cannot or do not want to provide for themselves, such as police and fire protection, education, health care, and road maintenance. They also set the rules that businesses must follow to operate legally, including consumer-protection and worker-safety laws. Governments can be good friends of business, helping them grow and flourish. But they can also be bad friends, overregulating and creating barriers to entry that stifle innovation.

Some people are concerned that the government is doing too little to help them and others in need. This is the root of a long debate about what role government should play in economic and social life. The debate has been especially heated during times of economic distress. Governments can redistribute wealth by collecting taxes from people and companies and then paying some of those funds to other people who are not working (unemployment benefits and social security), or who need assistance with food, housing, or medical care (government-funded welfare programs).

The most powerful part of the federal government is the Cabinet, which consists of the president and top members of executive departments. Each department has its own employees, who are often called civil servants. Government agencies are created to carry out specific functions as directed by the Constitution and legislation. Depending on the purpose of the agency, it may be classified as a legislative, executive, or judicial branch.

In a democratic system, the legislature makes laws and the executive branch enforces them. The judicial branch interprets laws and decides if they are constitutional. In the United States, the Supreme Court and other federal courts make up the judicial branch.

A common concern of many citizens is how well the government is preparing for and responding to crises, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and oil shortages. A large majority of Americans say the government is doing a good job in this area. The same is true of the government’s work in ensuring the safety of the country’s food, medicine, and water supplies.

Governments regulate business, create and enforce consumer-protection, worker-safety, and environmental laws, and provide social services to the poor and elderly. Some of these activities require a high degree of discretion and creativity by bureaucrats, but the overall process must be carefully managed to ensure fairness and accountability. A major goal of a bureaucracy is to establish procedural guidelines, known as regulations, that must be followed by everyone in the organization regardless of the specific situation at hand. To develop a new regulation, a government agency conducts public hearings and gathers written comments from people who are affected by the rule. It then creates a draft and revises it based on the input it receives. The resulting document is known as the final rule. Read more about this process in our article on How the Government Works. Then, take this interactive quiz to test your knowledge of government regulation.