Governments have existed for almost four thousand years, and while they differ in how they look, all share the same central function: they lead their citizens. Governments make decisions for the people by enacting laws, providing services and protecting their citizenry from harm. They do this through elected representatives and their agencies. The structure of a government is determined by the values of the people that form it. Governments can be described as democracies, autocracies, monarchies, oligarchies, republics or any combination of the above.
The word government comes from the Latin word gubernare, meaning “to steer a ship.” Governments are organized to manage different aspects of a society. The way they do this varies by country. In democratic countries, the people vote for their representatives and the leaders who represent them. In authoritarian countries, power is concentrated in the hands of a few people—often one person or a political party—and remains largely unchecked by the rest of the population. Most governments combine elements of both democratic and authoritarian models, limiting some freedoms while protecting their citizens.
In the United States, the government has a federal level, a state level and a variety of local levels. The Constitution outlines a set of rules that creates these different tiers of government, and years of building upon those rules have resulted in the system we have today.
At the top of the hierarchy is the executive branch, whose members include the president and other cabinet members. The legislative branch, aka Congress, is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The judicial branch includes the Supreme Court and other courts of appeals, which interpret and apply laws and rules. The executive and judicial branches act as checks on each other, keeping the presidency from abusing its authority.
The other main functions of government include ensuring national security, maintaining public order and providing services to its citizens. Some of these services are necessary to people’s well-being, like police and fire departments that protect their homes and property, schools that teach them, roads that provide them with a means of transportation and mail service that keeps them connected with the outside world. Governments also regulate access to common goods, such as natural resources and wildlife, so that they are not over-used.
In addition, governments collect taxes to fund their operations. This money is used to pay for things like policing, fire and ambulance services, libraries and education. In some cases, government officials may use their position to promote a particular ideal, such as egalitarianism or the destruction of social inequalities. The policies that a government supports determine the priorities it sets and the restrictions it puts on individual freedoms. If a government is concerned about national security, for example, it may allow law enforcement agencies to spy on its citizens or restrict what newspapers can publish. If it prioritizes liberty, however, it may place greater limits on surveillance and freedom of speech.