Governments perform many important tasks, including regulating access to “common goods,” such as natural resources, so that some people do not take too freely from the supply and leave others with nothing. Governments also provide public services, such as police, fire departments, and post offices. They build and manage civic amenities such as libraries, roads, and parks. And they manage the nation’s economy, ensuring that foreign investment and trade are stimulated and inflation is controlled.
While there are some who advocate the absence of organized government, most people recognize the need for some level of control in their societies. People often form political organizations, such as town councils, state legislatures, and Congress, to make laws that govern their communities and nations. They also pass taxes to raise money for the government and draft budgets that determine how funds will be spent on services like education, police departments, and fire stations.
In the United States, citizens vote every four years for a president from one of two main political parties, and they also elect city councils, state legislators, and Congress members to represent them at the local, state, and national levels. Government officials at these different levels must all work together to ensure that the policies they set are consistent throughout the country.
To achieve this goal, politicians must decide what principles they will follow and how they will apply them in their decision-making processes. For example, if they choose to support the principle of egalitarianism, they will promote programs that reduce socioeconomic inequalities and guarantee everyone’s right to equal treatment under the law. If they prioritize national security, they will put more emphasis on laws that authorize the surveillance of private communications and restrict what newspapers can publish.
Ultimately, to make sure that the laws and public services they set are carried out fairly and consistently, the framers of the U.S. Constitution created a system of three branches of government: the legislative branch (Congress, the Senate, and the House of Representatives); the executive branch (the President, his Cabinet, and the military); and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and federal courts). The various branches check on each other to ensure that no single group or person gets too much power.
The three branches of government must cooperate to set laws, but they cannot directly interfere with each other. The branches are separated because the framers understood that it was impossible to create politicians who were angels who would never try to grab more power than they should have. The best they could do was to structure the government so that ambition would be balanced by a competing force: the need to do the good work of the people. The result is the system of checks and balances that enables our democracy to function well.