The Basics of Government

The word government comes from the Latin locution gubernare, meaning “to steer or direct” or “to govern.” Government is the active agency invested with the power to manage a political unit, often called a state. Governments are found all over the world, and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but they share a common function: to establish and enforce policies that promote and protect the well-being of people in their midst.

Governments have been around for thousands of years, and ideas about what they should do and how they should be formed continue to evolve. Some governments are democratic; others are totalitarian or authoritarian. The majority of governments are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, combining elements of both democracy and authoritarianism.

The primary function of most governments is to provide law and order. Governments are also responsible for delivering many public goods. These include education, health care, national defense, social security, the environment and countless other services. Governments exist at the local, state and national level. They use tax dollars to pay for these goods and services. They may also borrow funds to meet their needs. They usually have three branches: the legislative, executive and judicial. These branches work together to make sure laws and policies are created and implemented according to a Constitution, which states the guiding principles and philosophy of the country’s government.

A Constitution provides the framework for the operations of government agencies and defines their powers, responsibilities and relationship to the citizenry. A Constitution is not infallible, but it is a guide that helps the agencies to operate and to remain accountable to the citizens they serve.

In the United States, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It establishes the separation of powers among the branches of government, checks and balances, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and other fundamental principles. The Constitution also contains the Bill of Rights, which outlines individual rights that must be protected by the government.

A key concept is the concept of democracy, which refers to the process by which citizens participate in government decision-making and policy formation. There are several types of democracy, including direct democracy, where citizens gather to form governing bodies, and indirect democracy, where delegates or representatives select the citizens who participate in a governing body. In direct democracy, the representatives are elected by the people to represent them. In indirect democracy, the delegates or representatives are selected by election or, less frequently, by sortition. Governments have been around for almost four thousand years, and the idea that they should be run by the people has only recently become widespread. Abraham Lincoln eloquently articulated this sentiment in his famous Gettysburg Address. Other writers and philosophers, such as Karl Marx, have argued that the genesis of most conflict in society is because people fight over property and privilege. Governments must create rules to limit these conflicts. They must do so without preventing people from pursuing their own interests, but they need to do so in ways that don’t interfere with the basic dignity and freedom of all people.