Governments set general rules of conduct for their citizens, define and protect property rights, and attempt to make markets more competitive. Governments also provide goods and services, redistribute income, and often attempt to make their people more secure. They are not without problems, however. Some governments impose a large burden of taxes on their people, and some of the benefits of those taxes may not be available to all.
There are many kinds of governments, from a monarchy in a small country to a dictatorship in a huge empire. The structure of a government determines its authority, how it functions, and who controls it. Governments also differ in the level of autonomy they have, which affects how much control they have over their citizens’ lives.
In a democracy, the people form their government by electing representatives to represent them at different levels of government. Representatives try to get funding for things that benefit those they represent. At the local level, this can mean money for city roads and schools. At the state level, it can mean funding for universities and prisons. At the national level, it can mean defense spending, Social Security benefits, and management of the nation’s parks.
At the federal level, there are three branches of our government: The executive branch, which carries out laws; the legislative branch, which creates and amends the laws; and the judicial branch, which evaluates those laws. The president, the vice president, and the heads of executive departments are part of the executive branch. They decide what to do, including whether to enact or veto laws created by Congress and nominate people to be the head of a federal agency. The legislative branch includes the Senate and House of Representatives, along with special agencies that provide support services to Congress.
The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court and other courts. The Justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Supreme Court, as the highest court in the land, can overturn laws deemed unconstitutional by lower courts. The legislative and judicial branches work together to create laws, approve or reject the president’s nominees for top positions in the government, and review and amend existing laws.
Most Americans think that the government does a good job protecting the country from terrorism and responding to natural disasters. But they are less likely to think that the government does a good job providing safe food and medicine, helping poor people escape poverty, or strengthening the economy.