Government is a group of people who control a country and make national decisions. It may also be used to describe the process and system of controlling a country, or the specific group of people who do so. Governments do not all look the same and vary widely in how they operate. Some are democratic, some are authoritarian, and others use elements of both. Governments provide a wide variety of goods and services, and may limit some freedoms or protect other ones.
Governments have been around for thousands of years, and throughout that time they have shared the same central function: to lead and protect their citizens. They do this by establishing rules and providing a safety net. Governments set the parameters for citizen behavior and protection against outside interference, and they provide basic needs like food, shelter, and education.
A country’s government is made up of several different levels and responsibilities, including federal, state, and local. At the local level, it includes school boards, city councils, and township board of supervisors. At the state level, it involves state colleges and universities, maintenance of roads and bridges, and wildlife management. At the federal level, it includes defense, Social Security, and pensions for veterans. Government agencies at each of these levels receive funding from taxpayers in order to perform their tasks.
Many of the words we use to describe governments—monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, for example—have been in common use for more than two thousand years. Their longevity suggests that they are useful, but it’s important to keep in mind that our world has changed a great deal since those words were first coined.
While it’s possible for private businesses to provide certain goods and services, there are some things that the market cannot supply because they require extensive resources and the cooperation of an entire nation. Governments can create these goods by providing them for free to all citizens, or by charging an amount that is proportionate to the population of a country. Two such examples of public goods are the United States military and its intelligence community.
There is no one answer to the question of why governments exist, as they come in a variety of forms and serve a broad range of purposes. Some people see a role for government in all areas of society, while others believe that the government should not interfere with the economy and personal freedoms. The vast majority of Americans—nearly six-in-ten Democrats and Republican leaners—agree that the government should play a major role in at least 10 areas of society. The opinions of those in the middle vary more, with Republicans in general supporting a smaller role for the federal government than do Democrats. The views of independents are more mixed.