Government is the process by which a society organizes itself and allocates authority in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that the society as a whole needs. Governments vary in size and style, but all seek to protect their citizens and create a structure by which goods and services can be made available to them. Governments at every level – from city councils and state legislatures to Congress and the White House – make decisions through representatives elected by their citizens, and they raise money to pay for those policies by imposing taxes on income, property, sales, or other transactions. Governments may also draft budgets that determine how those tax revenues will be used at the local, state, or national levels – for example, to build schools, provide police and fire departments, maintain roads and highways, manage national parks, etc.
The central function of governments is to protect citizens from the dangers that arise from living in a complex and rapidly changing world. This includes protecting citizens from violent crime, managing social inequality, and solving problems that individuals cannot solve on their own. Governments are able to do this because they can tax their citizens, access resources from their entire population, and use force to compel citizen compliance.
Another key function of government is providing goods and services that are not easily provided by markets or private individuals. This is known as the concept of positive externalities, or market failures, such as overfishing, global warming, and pollution that cause negative side effects for third parties. Governments often step in to resolve these market failures by limiting the power of a monopoly, or through regulations that impact the way businesses produce their products.
Other important functions of government include providing education and health care, and maintaining infrastructure for transportation and communication. These are called public goods, because they are important for everyone but can be difficult to produce in large quantities or at low prices. Governments also protect natural resources like water, wildlife, and land to ensure that a few people do not take too much of them, leaving others with nothing.
Besides the President, Cabinet, and Heads of Executive Departments, the U.S. government has a Judicial Branch that evaluates the laws to make sure they’re fair and equal. This includes a Supreme Court that has nine Justices who are nominated by the President and approved by a majority of Senators. They help make sure the laws and ways they’re enforced agree with the Constitution, like referees in a sport.
Each country or State has its own rules about how a government is formed, what powers it has, and how elections work. These rules are determined by the political system in place, which may be democratic (in which citizens decide what government policies to implement through direct participation and debate), authoritarian (in which the authority rests with a few leaders or one party), or some combination of both. The specific characteristics of a government are a reflection of the values and beliefs of its citizens. For example, if the government supports an ideal of equality, it will likely support civil rights and affirmative action. If it values liberty, it will likely limit the extent to which law enforcement agencies can tap citizens’ phones or restrict newspapers.