What Is Government?

Government is the system of people, laws, and officials that defines and controls the country in which you live. Although governments vary widely in their details, they all do the same basic things: they establish and enforce rules that set limits on everyday behavior for citizens; protect their citizens from outside interference and threats to security and safety; and help provide goods and services that can’t be produced or sold in the private marketplace.

The word government comes from the Latin locution gubernare, meaning “steer a ship.” In modern times governments have come to be regarded as active agencies invested with power to manage a political unit, organization or state. Many nations have a constitution, which is a statement of their governing principles and philosophy.

While some may argue that government should be limited in size and scope, all societies need some sort of governing body to organize the people they serve and to determine what is best for the nation as a whole. Without some form of government, chaos and disaster are certain to ensue. The most important job of any government is to create and maintain a framework within which the citizens of its society can enjoy economic prosperity, secure their borders and the health, safety and well-being of their citizens. Governments also help ensure that the nation’s resources can be utilized to fulfill the most basic needs of its citizens, such as education and healthcare.

Many people think of governments in terms of their ability to protect them from outside threats. In the United States, the government is usually referred to as the “Fed,” though it is actually the Federal Reserve Board and its purpose is explained in this series of PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files. Governments also need to be able to levy taxes on the citizens and use those funds to pay for essential public services and to fulfill its duties.

Some of the most important jobs of any government are those that protect common goods, or natural resources that everyone is free to use but that are in limited supply. Examples include clean drinking water, fish in the sea, and a healthy environment. Governments must protect these goods so that a few people do not take everything they can and leave others with nothing.

The people of a country elect representatives to make the decisions and run the business of their government. The United States, for example, is a democracy where the president, vice president and members of congress represent the people’s views at different levels of government. The three branches of the federal government have checks and balances to prevent one branch from usurping the authority of another. The president can veto legislation passed by Congress, and the justices of the Supreme Court can overturn unconstitutional laws. These are just a few examples of the ways in which the different branches work together to keep the government running smoothly and effectively.