What Is Government?

Government is the set of rules and laws that adults in a country make. The government makes sure those rules are followed, and it judges any disputes between the rules. The government is made up of three branches: the legislative branch (known as Congress, which includes the House of Representatives and the Senate), the executive branch (led by the President) and the judicial branch (court system including the Supreme Court). These are the people and agencies that make policy, enforce laws, and provide services to citizens. Each of these branches has its own unique powers and responsibilities.

One of the main jobs of government is protecting its citizens from violence and from the worst vicissitudes of life. The other big job of government is providing goods and services that the market cannot provide at low enough prices for everyone in a nation to have access. This includes military defense, roads, schools, social services, and environmental protection. To fund these programs, governments collect taxes and fees from citizens. Governments also use borrowing to get the money they need.

In the United States, the Constitution establishes how our federal government works. The framers arranged the government into branches to ensure that power is spread out and checks and balances are in place. The legislative branch (Congress) is responsible for making the laws that our country uses to run. The executive branch (led by the President) makes sure that everyone follows the laws Congress passes, and the judicial branch (court system including Supreme Court) interprets those laws.

Governments sometimes take on a big role in managing “negative externalities,” or problems that affect many people, such as overfishing and global warming. But most governments are reactive, waiting to step in after problems occur.

What a country’s government looks like depends on its political ideology. For example, if the government supports an ideal of egalitarianism that calls for equal treatment of all citizens, it may raise taxes to make sure people can afford things such as education and housing. On the other hand, if the government is more concerned with national security than individual liberty, it may approve wiretaps on people’s phones and restrict what newspapers can publish.

The word “government” comes from the Greek word for ruler, and it refers to any group that has authority over a region or community. Throughout history, there have been many different ways to organize a government. Some have had a single leader, called a monarchy. Others have had a small group of leaders, called an aristocracy. And still others have had a whole group of people, called the majority, decide the rules and policies.

As new ideas and important events emerged, so too did new forms of government. But all governments have two basic functions: protecting and providing. Different forms of government do this in different ways, but they all have the same goal. Government is a vital institution that allows a nation to function. Without it, there is no way to protect citizens from violence and to ensure that they have the means to meet their needs.