What Is a Government?


A government is the group of people that rules an organized community, usually a country. Governments around the world seek to accomplish a variety of goals, from managing the economy to providing stability and benefits for their citizens.

One of the most important things a government can do is provide structure for society, establishing rules that help keep people safe and productive. These structures can include schools, police and fire departments, highways, and national parks. Governments can also regulate access to common goods such as land and water for the benefit of all citizens. This helps prevent too many people taking too much from the natural resources available, such as a river or public land, leaving nothing for everyone to use.

Governments can also manage positive externalities, which are the side effects of economic activities that benefit some people but hurt others. Governments can do this by regulating business practices and setting standards for the environment, energy, and other areas. This can help ensure that the benefits of new technology or business practices do not come at the cost of other people, for example by requiring manufacturers to set safety standards and limit pollution. Governments can also help manage negative externalities, such as overfishing and global warming, by limiting activities that cause environmental damage.

In addition to setting laws and regulating behavior, governments also provide social services and create a framework for the economy. Governments can provide financial support for citizens in need (welfare), establish a currency, and maintain military defense. In the United States, Congress, state legislatures, and city councils make laws and decide how money raised by taxes will be spent for local and federal purposes. Congress can also pass legislatively directed spending, often referred to as “earmarks,” which direct funds toward specific projects, such as construction of a school or the repair of a highway.

A common view of a government is that it should represent the will of the majority of its citizens. There are many different theories of how government should function, however. Some scholars distinguish between democracies, totalitarian regimes, and authoritarian regimes, while others recognize that most governments are not a pure one or the other but combine elements of these systems.

The founders of the United States designed the American government with a principle called separation of powers and checks and balances, which is based on the idea that no single branch of the government should have too much power over the others. For example, Congress and the Senate (under the legislative branch) make laws, while the president and his cabinet (executive branch) implement those laws. If a law is passed that citizens disagree with, they can work to persuade Congress to change it or the president to veto it. They can also ask the Supreme Court and other federal courts (judicial branch) to review laws or presidential actions that they believe are unconstitutional. By passing amendments to the Constitution, Congress can effectively check the president’s authority.