The Basics of Government

Government is the structure through which a political unit (national, state, or local) exercises authority and performs functions. The way a government is organized determines its nature and limits its power. Governments provide goods and services to citizens, enforce laws, and make decisions that affect their lives. They may also serve other purposes, such as promoting economic prosperity or maintaining national security. Governments vary in size and type, but all governments seek to accomplish certain goals.

In the United States, people decide how their city, town, or county is run by voting for members of the council or board of supervisors. In the same manner, they elect representatives to city, state, and national legislatures. These bodies make laws to govern their communities, towns, cities, or counties. They also provide money for such things as schools, roads, and libraries. The federal government provides funds for defense, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and national parks. At the state level, lawmakers allocate money for things such as public universities and colleges, health services, prisons, and police departments.

Regardless of the form of government, all government agencies are required to obey the law and protect private property. The law defines what constitutes a crime and sets punishments for those who commit them. Government agencies also must balance the needs of the people with the need to maintain stability. The people want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, such as freedom of speech and the press and the right to vote, while the government wants to limit violence and keep the economy in good shape for all.

The Framers of the Constitution separated powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches so that no one branch could become too powerful. For example, the President can veto bills passed by Congress, but Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote. The Framers also established a system of checks and balances that ensures that the government doesn’t go too far overboard.

Governments are a means for society to organize itself in order to accomplish collective goals and provide the resources that people need in their everyday lives. In the United States, these include stable borders, safety in neighborhoods and on the streets, education, housing, health care, and a system for delivering mail. Governments also provide valuable services such as fire departments and police. The firefighters and the police don’t ask for payment before putting out a fire or stopping someone who breaks into a house and threatens the occupants. The people trust their governments to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing some of their own interests. This is why government is so important to all of us. It is what makes our nation special. 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. For more information, contact Customer Service.