The purpose of government is to create and enforce a set of rules. Governments provide services and protection for citizens that cannot be provided by markets or private businesses, such as national security and education. Governments also have the power to tax and compel citizen compliance with laws. Governments also play a role in promoting social and economic policies, such as reducing inequality and protecting the environment.
There is a broad range of ideas about what makes up a government and how it works. Some people use terms like monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy to describe different types of governments. Others distinguish different government systems based on whether the decision-making authority rests with one person (an autocracy, such as a monarchy), a select group of people (an aristocracy), or the entire population as a whole (a direct or representative democracy). Some also recognize different forms of political systems, such as communism, fascism, or liberalism.
Despite these variations in definition and classification, all forms of government are designed to do the same basic things. A key to successful governments is creating a system that balances the interests of different groups. For example, decisions should be made based on majority rule but should respect the rights of minorities. Governments should be accountable to the people and provide limits on the power of officials. They should promote economic freedom and protect individual and group rights. They should have competing political parties to give voters choices.
This is what the Founding Fathers meant when they referred to a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” They believed that government is most effective when it is governed by and for the people.
In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln cited this sentiment when he said, “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Governments must be accountable to the public and transparent in their decision-making. The process of making decisions should be open to scrutiny by the media and the people. Government agencies should not hide information or deny access to records under the guise of confidentiality or secrecy.
Branches of Government
The three major branches of government are the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. Each branch has specific functions, but each branch checks the powers of the other branches. This system of checks and balances is known as separation of powers. Throughout history, however, there have been ebbs and flows in the relative preeminence of each of these branches.