Government is the system through which a political unit (nation, state, city, or town) exercises authority and performs functions. It provides services, protects citizens, enforces laws, and controls activities of private business and individuals. Government is essential to the operation of civilized society.
Government officials are elected or appointed by citizens to represent their interests. In democratic societies, people vote for candidates based on their beliefs and values. In this form of government, the majority rules but minority opinions are respected. Many democracies also ensure that government leaders are held accountable for their actions by providing a bill of rights that limits the power of government and guarantees citizens’ freedoms.
In most western democracies, government is responsible for regulating economic activity and protecting the environment. The regulation of the economy includes things like taxation, trade agreements, and tariffs. Governments also protect citizens from harm by ensuring that health standards are met, enforcing laws to keep the environment clean, and providing education. Governments also provide certain goods that can be provided only by the public sector, such as national security and education. These goods are called public goods because they benefit all citizens.
While governmental authority is important, it must be limited to prevent abuse of power. To limit the power of government, most democracies have institutions that are separate from each other and that check each other’s powers. This arrangement is known as a separation of powers and checks and balances. The idea of separating these powers goes back to antiquity, and was a concept that James Madison, one of the founders of the United States Constitution, was familiar with.
Separation of powers and checks and balances create a system in which the three branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial—work together to create laws. The legislative branch, which includes Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives), makes the laws; the executive branch, which consists of the president, vice president, and their cabinet, carries out those laws; and the judicial branch interprets and enforces the law through the courts, including the Supreme Court and federal courts.
Another function of government is to provide social programs for its citizens. This involves giving money or benefits, such as unemployment compensation, welfare payments, or health insurance, to those who need them. This role of the government is controversial, with some people believing that it takes away a citizen’s sense of responsibility for his or her own welfare, while others argue that the lack of these programs causes poverty and other problems in society. Despite the controversy, most governments today provide some sort of social programs.