What Is a Government?


Despite differences in size and structure, all governments do the same basic thing: create rules that define and control people’s lives. Government rules determine what citizens can and cannot do, protect them from invasion, provide goods and services, and limit the abuse of power by officials. Governments also establish a framework by which people can interact with each other and with the environment, whether they are surrounded by mountains or oceans, in towns or cities, on farms or ranches. Governments are concerned primarily with public life, but the laws they create and enforce often regulate private life, too.

Governments evolved as people recognized that they were more likely to survive and thrive if they lived together in groups. When a group developed a sense of collective identity, it was able to recognize that one member of the group should have more power than another—which led to the formation of sovereign states. The concept of sovereignty—or the right of a state to be free of interference from other countries or regions—was formalized by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The definition of what constitutes a government is constantly evolving, reflecting the varying conditions of a particular place and the needs and beliefs of its people. In addition, different cultures and countries have their own political traditions.

A government consists of the people, laws, and institutions that oversee and administer a country’s affairs. Governments vary in size and complexity, but they usually include a president or prime minister, legislative bodies (such as parliaments and congresses), courts, civil servants, armed forces, and agencies that carry out administrative functions. Governments are generally recognized as legitimate when the people elect them, though they may be accused of being corrupt or illegitimate when they do not represent the interests of their constituents.

Modern classifications of government are based on the authority that controls a nation: a single person (an autocracy), a select group of people (an aristocracy), or all the citizens as a whole (a democracy). These categories are further subdivided into various regimes such as totalitarian, authoritarian, or democratic, though these classifications may overlap.

The role of government is to make and enforce laws that reflect the wishes of the people. Governments also protect the rights of citizens and ensure that officials are accountable. They can raise money to pay for programs by imposing taxes or tariffs, and they can direct spending toward specific items. This last function is known as earmarking.

A government also provides protections from threats to the well-being of its citizens, such as war or famine. It can also help secure the supply of certain resources, such as clean air or water. These are known as common goods because everyone can benefit from them, but they have a limited supply and therefore must be protected to avoid over-exploitation by a few people. Governments also protect “private” goods that are not in unlimited supply but can be owned and used privately by individuals, such as land or trees.