What Is Government?

Government refers to the system of rules, regulations and laws that people create to control themselves and each other. It also means the set of people – sometimes called “politicians” – who are empowered to make decisions and carry them out. The kind of government a country has depends on factors such as geography or climate, its history and political ideals. For example, a country with a long tradition of religious tolerance may be more likely to embrace democracy.

Governments are a fundamental part of human society, providing stability and security in the form of police and fire departments, education, transportation and mail service, and food, housing and health care for the poor. They also help protect common goods such as the fish in the sea and clean air – resources that everyone can benefit from but that are in limited supply. If people take too freely from the supply of these goods, there will not be enough for everyone. Governments regulate the use of these resources so that a few people do not dominate and leave others with nothing.

Whether a government is democratic or authoritarian, it has to make tough choices about how to handle complex issues such as terrorism, climate change and pandemics. And where a government falls on the democracy-authoritarianism spectrum determines how powerful and influential it is – and whether you have a voice in decisions made by your government.

People have been arguing about the purpose and nature of governments for thousands of years. One theory is that they originated as a way to keep people from fighting over property, which could lead to murder and rape. Another theory is that they developed as a way to protect the rights of a group (later, a nation) to live by its own law without interference from outsiders.

There are many kinds of government, ranging from monarchies and aristocracies to republics and democracies. Each of these governments has its own strengths and weaknesses. Identifying a form of government can be difficult, as each political system develops from socio-economic movements with competing ideologies and differs from one country to the next.

One key question is who has the power to rule: a single person (an autocracy, such as a monarchy), a select group of people (an aristocracy), or all the citizens as a whole (a democracy). Another important consideration is how a government makes and enforces its rules. Business interests often complain that too many government regulations stifle innovation and impose unfair costs. Consumer advocacy and public interest groups also have concerns about regulations that fail to take into account their impact on workers, consumers and the environment. Regulatory capture is a real concern, where government agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest become controlled by the industries they are supposed to regulate. This is a major reason why it is so important for people to participate in the process of creating government policy.