Government is the system of people and laws that define and control a country. It is responsible for setting and enforcing the rules of society, protecting its citizens, managing defense, foreign affairs, and the economy, and providing public services like education, health care, and police protection. Governments are different from one another, and they have many different names and forms. The word government comes from the Latin word gubernare, which means to steer a ship or vessel. This definition is fitting because, like a ship needs a captain to direct it, so does a nation need a leader to manage its affairs.
The most important task of any government is to protect people and property. Governments are often used to make sure that all citizens have access to certain goods and services, which cannot be supplied by the market, because they are expensive or impossible to produce in sufficient quantity, such as national security and public education (Figure 1.3). Governments also provide safety and security in the form of police departments and firefighting units, and help people survive disasters through emergency food, water, and shelter distribution.
In addition, governments are needed to collect taxes and regulate trade and investment. Governments are also responsible for the distribution of education and culture, and in some cases provide employment opportunities for people who cannot find jobs in the private sector.
The United States has a federal, state, and local level of government that provides many essential services to its citizens. These services include public schools, highways, electricity, water supply, mail service, and the Internet. These are called “public goods” because they benefit the whole population at a lower cost than private businesses can offer them. Governments are also needed to provide basic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, as well as social services like welfare and unemployment benefits.
At the Constitutional Convention, the Framers of our constitution debated how much power each branch of government should have. They ultimately settled on a three-coequal branch model, in which Congress makes laws, the executive branch commands the military, and the judiciary evaluates the constitutionality of laws.
This separation of powers helps ensure that policymaking in the United States is a long process, and that policies are subject to many checks and balances. It also allows citizens to influence lawmaking by lobbying Congress and the President for or against particular legislation. If Congress passes a law that a citizen opposes, the President can veto it, which requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House to override.
There are many other kinds of government in the world, including monarchies, oligarchies, and dictatorships, as well as democratic, socialist, and communist countries. It is difficult to assign a label to a form of government, because most political systems are born from socio-economic movements that later evolve into different types of governments. However, some of these governments are based on specific political ideologies, such as democracy, liberalism, and fascism.