What Is Government?

Government is a structure by which people organize themselves to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that they need as a society. Its exact form is varied and reflects the different ideas about the ideal form of a society, but generally, government exists to establish laws, enforce them, and protect people from harm. Governments also have a role in providing social programs to help people. These may include welfare, jobs for the unemployed, health care, education, and infrastructure for transportation. Governments also often have military forces that protect the country from foreign invaders and other major threats to its security.

People also elect representatives to local city councils, state legislatures, and Congress to make laws for the nation. Those elected bodies make policies and draft budgets that determine how funds will be spent to provide services. Governments also have diplomats who communicate with other countries to try to solve problems, avoid war, and make trade agreements that benefit both countries.

All governments require some funding to operate, and that is typically accomplished by levying taxes or tariffs on items such as income, property, or sales. Those taxes are then used to pay for programs and services. Governments also may issue debt to finance large projects. Congress may also mandate that certain funds go to specific projects, a practice called “earmarking.”

Besides making laws and setting budgets, government has many other functions. A central one is protecting people from harmful activities that might damage the environment or cause injuries to others. Governments have police departments and courts to enforce the laws they make. Governments also have soldiers and other armed forces to protect the country from foreign invaders or major disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or a terrorist attack.

It is important that citizens have access to information about their government, such as the processes and procedures it uses to make decisions. Access to this information is a fundamental right of citizens, and government should not hide this information behind secrecy or confidentiality.

A fundamental principle of any system of government is that the people must be protected from tyranny and that there must be checks and balances between the various parts of government. The Framers of the Constitution designed a system in which power is divided between a national (federal) government and state governments, with each level of government having its own branch of the federal government and its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches. This prevents any one branch from exercising too much power.

Some of the most important and difficult questions about government are why it exists and what role it should play in people’s lives. Some people, such as the philosopher Plato, believe that the need for government arises from human nature: individuals will always clash over property and privileges, and it is the job of government to mediate these conflicts. Others, including the Founders of the United States, believe that government should be limited in scope to protect the lives and liberties of the citizens, and that the purpose of government is to serve its people.