The Basics of Government

Government is a system of rules and responsibilities that creates the parameters for everyday behavior for citizens, protects them from outside interference, and often provides them with goods and services that they cannot easily obtain on their own. Governments are not inherently good or bad, but their existence is necessary to maintain order and provide security for people, and also to make sure that everyone gets the necessities of life. Governments have many responsibilities and functions, including the right to tax its citizens, regulate commerce, provide health care, and provide education. Governments also enforce laws to ensure safety and fairness for its citizens.

The word government comes from the Latin verb gubernare, meaning “to govern” or “to rule.” Governments exist at all levels of human society, from tribal groups to large countries. Most governments are democratic, but some are totalitarian or autocratic. Aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, and theocracy are types of government that have been used throughout history. These systems vary in their power, efficiency, and legitimacy.

Governments first evolved as people discovered that they needed to unite into larger groups for protection against other tribes and other outside forces. They also recognized the importance of having a leader and that one member of the group should have more authority than others. This recognition is the basis of sovereignty, or the right of a nation to decide its own destiny without outside interference. Governments have evolved over time to become more complex, with different responsibilities and rights depending on the needs of people in different times and places.

In the United States, a person elects representatives to city councils, state legislatures, and Congress, which makes laws and drafts budgets to determine how much money will be spent on public purposes. These budgets include mandatory spending, which represents almost two-thirds of annual federal spending. It includes Social Security and Medicare, the popular retirement and health insurance programs, as well as widely used safety net programs like food stamps and welfare.

Mandatory spending is legislated by Congress, usually for multiple years at a time. The rest of federal spending is discretionary, which requires an annual vote to enact appropriation laws that allocate funds for specific purposes. The appropriation process usually includes an estimate of how much will be spent and what the budget should cover for that year.

This structure provides a mechanism for keeping politicians in check and preventing them from grabbing too much power. James Madison wrote that it is impossible to have perfect politicians who will never be tempted to grab more power than they should, so the best way to limit ambition is to separate the powers of the government.