The Basics of Government

Government is the institution that a society establishes to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that the people as a whole need. Governments around the world seek to accomplish these goals in their own ways, but they generally include providing services such as education, health care, and transportation infrastructure, protecting the environment, and keeping citizens safe from crime. Some governments also protect the natural rights of their citizens, and many allow their citizens to vote for leaders who will represent their interests in government.

Governments vary in size, structure, and power. Some are centralized in one person or organization, while others are decentralized and include multiple institutions with different powers and functions. A central authority is more common in monarchies and oligarchies; a decentralized system is more common in republics and democracies. Governments are also classified by the type of people who have the power to make decisions. These can be one group of people (an autocracy, like a monarchy) or the people as a whole (a democracy). Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, theorized that if people believed that they could not live without government protections, they would enter into a social contract with each other and agree to let the government protect their freedoms in return for the protections it would offer them. This agreement, called a social compact, is the basis of modern Western democracy.

Besides providing basic services, governments often seek to protect their citizens and promote economic growth. These goals are accomplished through laws, courts, military and police forces, taxation, and regulation. The Constitution of the United States outlines the basic structure and rules for the government in this country.

A major role of the government is regulating access to “common goods” — goods that all people may use free of charge, but are in limited supply, such as fish in the sea or clean water. If some people take too freely from the supply of these resources, there may not be enough left for everyone to enjoy. Governments at the national and local levels protect these resources by limiting how much people can take of them.

At the same time, governments regulate businesses by creating and enforcing consumer-protection and worker-safety laws. Some businesses complain that these laws limit their ability to do business, but others argue that businesses have damaged the environment, abused workers, and defrauded consumers in their pursuit of profits. Governments can balance these competing interests by ensuring that regulations are not over-reaching.

Many governments are run by members of political parties, and some have multiple competing parties within the government. Often, these parties compete by promoting their candidates for office in order to win elections and gain control of the government. In democratic countries, the majority of voters select their preferred candidate through a voting process. The majority wins, and the winner becomes the new leader of the government. In the case of a tie, a second vote may be held to determine the winner.