What Is a Government?

A government is a group of people who form laws and provide services to a society. Its responsibilities are many and varied, from forming effective policies to building civic amenities. At the same time, governments must protect their citizens from foreign threats and effectively manage a nation’s economy. They also provide goods and services such as education, health care, housing, and mail service. Governments vary in size from city councils to the United States Congress.

At the local, state, and national levels, governments collect money through taxes on incomes, property, and sales. This money is then allocated to specific purposes. Local governments may use the funds for things like police and fire departments, public libraries, or maintaining roads. On the state level, money is used for schools, college scholarships, and prisons. On the national level, money is allocated for things such as defense, Social Security, pensions for veterans, and management of national parks.

One of the most controversial functions of government is its role in promoting the general welfare, or “the well-being” of its people. Some governments offer extensive social programs, such as national medical insurance and free food or cash payments to poor families. Other governments, such as the United States under President Lyndon Johnson, emphasized “Great Society” programs that offered jobs and relief payments to all citizens. Some people believe that a government should promote the common good by providing these social programs, while others think that it should leave this responsibility to private organizations or individuals.

As a result of this debate, governments have come to define their scope of power in different ways. For example, if a country’s government places more emphasis on protecting its people from economic and security threats, it may increase the scope of its power by granting its police departments the authority to tap phones and restrict what newspapers can publish. However, if a government values more the protection of its citizens’ liberty, it may limit the extent to which its law enforcement agencies can intrude on the private lives of its citizens.

Governments are made up of three branches—the legislative, executive, and judicial—which work together to set the rules for their citizens. In the United States, the legislative branch is Congress, which makes the laws. The executive branch consists of the President and cabinet, which carry out those laws. And the judicial branch consists of Supreme Court justices and other federal judges, who evaluate those laws. History has taught us that making any one of these branches too powerful can cause big problems. To prevent this, our ancestors created a system of checks and balances, in which each branch has the power to check the other branches. This is called the separation of powers. Click the link below to learn more about this system. Then, take our quiz to see how much you understand about the three branches of the American government. You can also share the quiz with friends and family members to test their knowledge of how our government works.