Government is the institution by which society organizes itself to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that individuals as well as groups cannot afford on their own. In nations with democratic elections, citizens make decisions about their governments through representatives whom they elect. Governments vary in size and shape, but all have some common characteristics. Governments seek to protect the rights of their citizens, ensure the safety of its people and secure its borders. They are also responsible for providing public goods and services such as education, health care, housing and the mail.
Governments are usually organized into three branches: the executive, legislative and judicial. Each branch has a specific set of powers, but they are all limited by the Constitution or their own laws. This system of checks and balances prevents one branch from becoming too powerful or making bad decisions.
The executive branch is made up of the president, vice president and cabinet. They make policy and carry out the laws passed by Congress. The president has the power to sign or veto legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto by passing the same bill again with a two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress. The judicial branch is a check on the other branches by reviewing laws and deciding if they are constitutional.
Unlike private businesses, the government does not require payment in exchange for its goods or services. This allows for the protection of the public from harm, such as war and terrorism. It also provides stability and security through the military, police departments, fire departments and national parks. Governments are also able to provide goods and services that are not profitable for individuals to produce or sell, but are valuable to all (figure 1.3). For example, a national park does not charge visitors, but citizens benefit from the park’s natural resources such as fish in the sea and clean air.
In addition to a sense of security, government at the local, state and federal level also provides social programs such as food stamps, welfare, housing assistance and medical insurance. The government can help with the cost of these goods and services by raising money through taxes on income, property and sales. These taxes are then allocated to the appropriate programs.
Different forms of government exist around the world, and their specific structure depends on many factors including the economics of a country, its cultural traditions and the needs of its people. Some countries have a tradition of democracy, while others have monarchies or autocracies. These forms of government differ in the way they allocate power among their people. For instance, in democracies, most power is vested in the hands of elected officials while in autocratic governments, authority is centralized in the hands of a few people. Governments also differ in the extent to which they allow citizens to express their views and opinions to those in power. This is called participatory democracy. Countries with participatory democracy include the United States, France, Britain and most of its European neighbors.