Government is the structure by which a society organizes and allocates authority in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that the society as a whole needs. Governments have many different functions, but they typically include enforcing the law, providing goods and services to citizens (like education and public safety), establishing economic prosperity and secure national borders, protecting the environment, and ensuring that all people are treated fairly. Governments are also able to do things that private businesses cannot, such as collecting taxes and deploying large military forces.
There are different types of governments around the world, from democracies to dictatorships, but they all share a central function: To lead and protect their people. Governments are often described as being “the embodiment of the will and consent of the people.” The will is expressed through elections in which citizens choose their representatives to represent them in the government, and the consent is manifested through the ability of citizens to vote on laws and other matters that affect their lives.
In the United States, for example, citizens elect their city councils, state legislatures, and Congress to make laws and govern their respective jurisdictions. Governments are also able to raise funds by imposing taxes on income, property, and sales. Local, state, and federal governments then draft budgets that determine how the funds taken in will be spent for services. On the local level, for example, funding is allotted for things like education, police and fire departments, and maintenance of public parks.
Some of the most important duties of a government are those that deal with “public goods,” which are services that all citizens may use without charge and that do not get worse or better when more people use them. Examples of public goods are the postal service and public schools. Private businesses could not afford to provide these goods, which is why governments are tasked with delivering them.
Another important function of government is the regulation of access to common goods, which are in limited supply and are used by all citizens (such as wildlife and natural resources). Governments regulate access to these goods so that they do not get depleted or overcrowded. The government can make these decisions for the benefit of everyone, or it can take a position that prioritizes one group of citizens over another.
In addition to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government defined in the Constitution, there are hundreds of other federal agencies that handle a wide variety of tasks. These responsibilities include managing America’s national security, protecting the environment, advancing social welfare programs, and maintaining infrastructure for transportation.