What Is Government?

Government refers to the system through which people — typically citizens of a nation or state — exercise power to make laws and rules and provide services. There are a variety of views about what governments should do and how they should be structured.

Some think that government should do little more than provide order and national security, while others believe that it should also take on social-economic problems such as poverty and unemployment. Still others suggest that a balanced role is needed between different types of governments and between the federal and local levels. Most people agree that there are three governmental levels: the national level, which is framed by the Constitution; and the state and local levels, which are governed by state constitutions.

The idea of a political community that has a government came from the evolution of the family into tribal groups, where each tribe was headed by a chief or a group of elders. With the development of agriculture and the invention of writing, humans could communicate abstract ideas about how to run a society, and eventually a central authority was formed to govern each tribe, often with elected representatives to speak on behalf of the entire nation.

These early governments were called monarchies, oligarchies, or democracies, and were all based on some form of rule by one person (an autocracy) or by a select group of people (an aristocracy). Aristotle elaborated on this idea in his Politics, where he described five forms of government: the government of the few, the government of the many, the government of the middle, and the government of the whole nation.

A government creates a structure through which goods and services can be provided to the citizenry, by making laws and by spending money. It does this by raising funds from citizens through the imposition of taxes on income, property, and sales. Governments then draft budgets that establish how the funds they receive will be used to meet public needs, such as educating children, repairing roads, and providing health care.

Governments regulate access to common goods such as natural resources and water. This is because these resources are in limited supply, and if too many people use them at once, there may not be enough for everyone. Governments also protect citizens from dangerous products and from monopolies that unfairly restrict competition.

In the United States, a government is run by the President and the Cabinet, and a judicial branch that evaluates laws and makes decisions on constitutional issues. The President appoints the heads of 15 executive departments, including the CIA and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as judges and ambassadors. He is also the commander in chief of the armed forces and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the government. The judicial branch is comprised of the Supreme Court and all other courts. The Constitution states that any powers not granted to the Federal Government are reserved for the States and the people.