What Is a Government?

A government is the organization that makes and enforces the rules of a society. It is also responsible for national security, foreign affairs, the economy and public services. Its responsibilities are different in every country and vary according to the type of government—for example, a direct democracy versus a representative democracy. In addition, different governments have different approaches to making and enforcing laws and other tasks.

Governments are necessary in all societies because they offer citizens protection if they agree to conform to the laws the government puts into place. These laws can include not only the right to free speech and the press, but also the rights of property ownership and privacy. They can also regulate access to certain common goods such as water, wildlife and the air. Governments help to manage negative externalities in the economy, such as pollution and overfishing. Governments can even provide a source of capital by lending money to companies and individuals.

The oldest and simplest justification for government is as protector: to protect citizens from violence by each other or from foreign threats. This justification requires the ability to raise taxes to fund and train a police force and army; to build courts and jails; and to elect or appoint officials who will pass and enforce laws that citizens must not break. It also requires the ability to meet and negotiate with other governments and to fight them when necessary.

This justification is the basis for a large portion of modern political philosophy. It is the reason why people support democracy, authoritarian regimes and a wide variety of hybrid systems between these two. Governments may be ruled by one person (an autocracy), by a select group of people (an oligarchy), or by the entire population as a whole (a democracy).

In the United States, government agencies at the local, state and federal levels work to provide stability and security in the form of a police department and fire department, schools, roads and mail service. Governments also allocate funds for things such as food, housing and health care for the poor.

These agencies and programs are all funded by taxes that the majority of Americans approve. However, many people believe that the size of government has gotten too big, and they would like to see cuts in spending.

Those who think that the government has become too big often have differing opinions as to why. Some point to the increase in social programs, including welfare, while others argue that tax cuts have resulted in a growing deficit. Still, more than six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 prefer a bigger government that provides more services.