The Basics of Government


Government is the means by which a society organizes itself and allocates power in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that it considers essential for its members. Among the goals governments strive to accomplish are economic prosperity for their nations, secure borders and the safety of citizens. Governments also provide services for their citizens, such as education and health care. Governments vary in size and structure, but all have the power to tax, impose rules and regulations and levy punishments for those who do not obey laws.

Governments may be either friend or foe of business, providing financial and advisory services to corporations while creating and enforcing consumer-protection and worker-safety laws that are designed to limit their influence. However, many nations have a history of getting stuck in patterns of long-term decline due to overregulation. Some experts believe that the solution is to find ways for governments to be both friendly and neutral with businesses, avoiding overregulation while still regulating when necessary.

In addition to providing stability and goods for citizens, at the local, state, and federal levels, government provides other valuable goods and services such as mail service, police departments, fire departments, food assistance programs, public education, and highways (Figure 1.1). These are often called “public goods,” since everyone benefits from them, but the market cannot supply them in sufficient quantities or at low enough costs so that everyone can benefit.

A government’s ability to tax, draw upon the resources of a nation, and compel citizen compliance make it the only entity capable of protecting the country from outside threats. Governments also perform an important function by preserving common goods that people can use free of charge but are in limited supply, such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water.

At the local level, residents elect representatives to city councils and county commissions, while state voters choose representatives to their legislatures and Congress. The elected bodies make laws to govern their jurisdictions, and they also draft budgets for how the money that is taken in will be spent for services. On the national level, the federal government allocates funds for things like defense, Social Security, and pensions for veterans. On the state level, funding goes for public colleges and universities, maintenance of roads and bridges, and wildlife management. The Constitution and Bill of Rights protect citizens’ freedoms, including the right to vote and express their opinions freely in the media. This means that if a law is passed that a citizen disagrees with, the individual can work to persuade his or her legislators to change the law or vote against it. This is a central tenet of the democratic system of government.