What Is Government?

Government is the organization through which a political unit (national, state or local) exercises authority and performs functions. Governments make laws to control citizens’ behavior and provide goods and services, such as education, police and fire protection, and road maintenance. Governments also create a structure for people to organize themselves in order to make decisions and debate issues. Governments may be democratic or nondemocratic, republican or parliamentary, and centralized or decentralized.

Governments have many jobs, such as collecting taxes, regulating businesses, and providing national defense. Many government employees work in departments, such as the Department of Labor or the Department of Agriculture, but other workers are part of a specific agency or program, such as the Centers for Disease Control or the Library of Congress.

One important function of a government is to protect common goods, such as fishing in the ocean and clean drinking water. These are goods that everyone can use but that are in limited supply, so they must be protected so a few people cannot take all that is available and leave others with nothing. Governments can do this by setting rules for use and imposing fines or punishment for breaking the rules.

Another important job of a government is to collect money for things that benefit a large number of people. This is done by making laws that require people to pay a fee, called a tax, on things like income, property and sales. The money is then used for the purposes that the people who pay the tax have designated. For example, the people of a city or town might vote to allocate funds for things such as public schools, police and fire departments, and road maintenance.

In the United States, people elect representatives to make laws and decide other matters for their cities and towns, counties and states, and country through a process known as representative democracy. These representatives are members of city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. Governments also draft budgets to determine how the money they collect will be spent for the various services that they offer. For example, the people of a state might choose to allocate funds for state colleges and universities, maintenance of roads and bridges, and wildlife management.

Many people believe that governments should play a role in preventing or alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, and ensuring fair treatment of all citizens. In 2022, a Pew Research Center study showed that majorities of Republicans and Democrats support government having a large role in these areas. The study’s full results can be found here.