A government is a group of people that creates and enforces the laws of a particular territory. Typically, governments also provide security, national welfare and economic assistance. Governments are concerned primarily with public life, but many of the rules that they establish and enforce can have implications for private as well as public behavior.
There are many theories of how governments came into existence, but most agree that they are the result of a combination of social and historical factors. In any case, they have grown along with civilization, evolving to meet the needs of increasingly complex societies.
Governments are often classified as republics, democracies and monarchies. There are many variations among these three categories, however, and the exact definition of each type can be contested. The basic characteristics of these different forms are that they all entail some form of democratic rule and that they each involve some degree of authority being vested in an elected body, or in a monarch.
Those who believe that the government should be limited to certain basic functions, such as protecting citizens from aggression and ensuring that property rights are respected, are known as minarchists. In a minarchist system, the only governmental institutions would be armed forces, police and courts, and they would have very limited powers to enforce laws. A variant of this is a night watchman state, a utopian concept that has been described in fiction and that has been advocated by some libertarians.
While most agree that the power of a government should be limited, there is much disagreement about what exactly those limitations should be. For example, while the government can and does punish companies that pollute the air or water, individual citizens might be able to pursue these companies through the courts if they have the resources to do so. In any case, the Founders of the United States were clear that the government must be limited in order to protect the freedoms of the people.
A republic is a type of government in which the leadership is not hereditary but instead is selected through elections that are regarded as expressions of the citizenry’s will. This system of governance, which grew out of the concept of “res publica” (public matter), is usually considered to be the most dependable against the rise of a tyranny because the leaders are expected to represent the interests of the majority of the people.
A monarchy is a form of government in which a single person or family holds ultimate sovereignty. This form of rule can take a variety of forms, including an absolute monarchy or a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary legislature. It is also possible for a monarch to act as a figurehead, with the actual power being exercised by a cabinet or other government officials. There is also the possibility of a hereditary royal house, which is similar to a constitutional monarchy but without a legislative body. This type of monarchy is sometimes referred to as a timocracy or an oligarchy.