Government is the organization through which a nation, state, or locality exercises authority and performs functions. Governments have many different structures, but they all share a common goal: to manage the affairs of a community in a way that reflects its values and satisfies people’s needs. Governments are also a means by which individuals can express their interests and opinions through elections for members of public offices. The word “government” is also used to refer to the structure of political institutions that embody certain fundamental norms, like mutual tolerance and forbearance.
The basic function of a government is to provide goods and services for its citizens. To do this, governments raise money through taxes on income and property, draft budgets, and enact laws to determine how the funds are to be spent. At the local level, city councils and township boards of supervisors make these decisions on behalf of their communities. At the state and national levels, a legislature (Senate and House of Representatives) and an executive branch (president and cabinet) set the rules for their jurisdictions. The judicial branch evaluates these laws, including those set by the Supreme Court, by presiding over trials and hearing cases.
Some of the most important services that government provides are social programs. These include providing medical care, housing, and food to citizens in need. Other examples of social programs are schools and police and fire departments. Governments may also provide infrastructure such as roads and utilities.
A major debate about the role of government is the extent to which it should solve problems that can’t be solved by market forces alone. For example, individuals can pursue polluting businesses in the courts, but it is much easier for governments to regulate those industries and punish them for their harmful activities.
There is significant variation among countries in the form of their government, though most have some type of democratic system. Democracies are based on the principle that individuals have the right to participate in their own government, either directly or through representatives they elect. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, concentrate power in the hands of a few people or groups and leave them unchecked. Many nations combine elements from both types of government, resulting in mixed democracies and autocracies.
Another key debate about the role of government concerns whether it should limit its powers. Many people believe that the government should only be allowed to protect individual freedoms, and not control or influence their private lives. Others, however, argue that the government should be able to take action when private actions threaten the common good. This is often referred to as the “normative” argument for government. Proponents of this view cite the work of scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have identified fundamental norms that are needed for a government to function, such as mutual toleration and forbearance. They also emphasize the need to have a system of checks and balances, which limits one branch of government’s power from overstepping its bounds.