Government is the organization through which a political unit (national, state, or local) exercises authority and performs functions. Governments may be based on rule by the majority or by the minority, and they often create a complex set of laws that dictate what citizens can do and can’t do. Governments exist to serve the needs of people and their communities by providing services, ensuring security, and protecting property.
The way that governments organize themselves and the type of rules they create vary greatly over time and place. In the United States, a government is a representative democracy, meaning that a few people out of everyone are elected to make laws and represent their constituents in policy-making. The resulting system is a complex web of separation of powers and checks and balances that the U.S. Constitution’s framers learned from studying ancient texts like Aristotle’s Politics and John Locke, the late 17th-century British philosopher who wrote “Letters Concerning Civil Government.”
One of the major jobs of government is to provide basic services. This can include things such as police and fire departments, schools, libraries, highways, and roads. It also includes regulating the activities of private companies and businesses and maintaining public safety. Governments usually collect taxes and other fees to pay for the services they provide, and these revenues often are used to help people who cannot afford to pay for some of these services on their own.
In addition, governments play a critical role in protecting what are called common goods — resources that everybody can use but are limited in quantity, such as fish in the sea and freshwater. Governments must protect these goods so that a few people don’t over-exploit them and leave others with nothing to use.
Another vital job of governments is addressing people’s problems and providing social welfare programs. This is a very controversial area of government, and there is much debate about how this responsibility should be carried out. Some nations, such as the Western democracies of the United States and Britain, offer comprehensive national health insurance and other social programs, while others believe that these programs are too expensive and destroy a citizen’s sense of responsibility for his or her own well being.
In the United States, government is the largest employer in most states and cities, providing jobs for teachers, nurses, and police officers, among other positions. Government employees typically have greater job security than people who work for private companies, and they are generally less likely to be laid off in hard times. Government workers are also more likely to have benefits such as health care and retirement plans. All of these reasons and more contribute to the fact that government employees are generally paid more than workers in other sectors. In fact, some of the highest salaries in the country are found in government, particularly in state and federal jobs. This is also true of some other countries around the world.