Government is the system that organizes and allocates authority to accomplish goals and provide benefits that society as a whole needs, such as economic prosperity and secure national borders. Governments around the world come in many shapes and sizes, but most share certain characteristics.
Governments set laws and enforce those laws, and they also provide essential services to the public. These services include police departments, fire departments, and postal service. Governments also provide social programs that help citizens by providing food, housing, and medical care. These types of programs are called public goods because everybody can use them, but they are limited in supply (see Figure 1.3). Governments protect common goods by managing their availability. For example, they regulate how much polluting industries can produce and make sure that the quantity of fish in the sea is not too high or that there is enough clean drinking water in the world. Governments also control access to some private goods by charging a fee, or a toll, for the right to use them.
In the United States, we are a representative democracy. That means a few people out of everyone in the country are elected to make laws for all of us. These people are called members of Congress, and they are divided into the House of Representatives and Senate. We vote to elect our representatives every two years, and the number of representatives we have varies from state to state.
Congress passes laws that govern the Federal Government. To pay for the laws it makes, Congress levies taxes and tariffs. It can also earmark spending, or direct how funds are spent, on specific projects. In addition, the President and other executive branch officials carry out the laws it passes. And the Supreme Court and other judicial branch officials judge whether or not laws are constitutional.
Most Americans have more contact with their local and State governments than they do with the Federal Government. These governments usually consist of legislative, executive, and judicial branches. They make decisions about things like street lighting and school lunches. They often manage parks and libraries and issue drivers’ licenses. They also run courts that hear cases for low-level violations, such as traffic tickets and disorderly conduct.
There is a lot of debate about what role government should play in society, and different people hold different views. Some think that governments should promote a particular philosophy or idea, such as egalitarianism or environmental protection. Others believe that government should simply solve problems that cannot be addressed by market forces.
Whatever the philosophy or idea behind a particular type of government, all governments have the same basic functions. Most importantly, all governments protect their citizens. This is why most nations have an army. Governments also protect citizens from natural disasters, and they offer many other vital services, such as education, health care, and public transportation. Moreover, most governments have a police and fire department that provides security, and a postal service that delivers letters to every house in the country.