What Is a Government?


The word “government” refers to the way a society organizes itself and assigns authority in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that the whole society needs. Governments can take many forms and operate in a wide range of ways. Regardless of their differences, however, all governments have certain major characteristics:

Governments are responsible for taking care of people, making laws, and providing services like law enforcement, infrastructure, education, housing, and healthcare. They do this by collecting taxes from citizens and businesses, then using those funds to provide goods and services. Governments also use these funds to pay the salaries of employees and to administer programs.

Some governments make laws that prohibit certain behaviors, and then punish those who violate them. Governments also regulate the market to prevent monopolies or address negative externalities (e.g. pollution) that may affect third parties. They can also affect markets by directly funding specific investments or industries.

Lastly, governments often redistribute wealth by offering welfare programs like unemployment, Social Security, and pensions for the elderly. They do this by raising taxes (income and sales taxes) from individuals and businesses, then using those funds to help out the less fortunate. They usually have a budget they negotiate each legislative period, which outlines their deficit goals and expenditures.

Many people have strong opinions about the proper role of government, and about how much power it should have. For example, some people believe that governments should make all the laws, while others think that the private sector is better positioned to take on this responsibility. Similarly, some people think that it is morally obligatory for governments to help those in need, while others believe that this obligation should be fulfilled through free acts of charity.

Governments can vary widely in the extent to which they make laws and redistribute wealth, and these differences often reflect different values that societies hold. For example, if a society places a high value on national security and low on individual liberty, it will likely authorize the tapping of citizens’ phones and restrict what newspapers can publish.

Governments also vary in the degree to which they allow freedom of speech, religion, and association. Ultimately, the degree to which a government is successful in meeting its responsibilities will depend on how well it balances the competing demands of these values. Governments can become overbearing and heavy-handed, or they can be efficient and benevolent. The latter option usually requires a democratic political process and the input of citizens. Whichever type of government a society chooses to have, it is essential that it be transparent and accountable. Citizens must be able to review the processes and statistics that lead to decisions. This is the only way to ensure that the government is acting in their best interest. Otherwise, it is simply too easy for special interests to manipulate politicians and to erode the public’s trust in the institutions of government. This article has been revised and updated.