What Is Government?


Government is the system that controls and makes national decisions. The term can also be applied to a group of people who control a country and make decisions collectively, such as a corporation or a union. Government is usually represented by a central figure like a president or prime minister, and it can be broken down into branches that create, enforce, and interpret laws.

The three branches of government are legislative, executive, and judicial. The Constitution created these roles to offer a balance of collaborative checks and balances, making it difficult for any one branch to abuse power. The legislative and executive branches write and pass national laws, while the judicial branch ensures these laws are enforced and interpreted according to the Constitution. These roles are often reflected in state and local governments as well.

Governments typically seek to address the needs of their citizens, ranging from economic security (jobs, education, and health care) to social needs such as housing for the poor and protection of private property. Government bodies are constantly seeking ways to harness ideas and resources that will improve citizens’ lives. The scope of the problems they tackle can seem overwhelming, and it is not unusual for the government to fail at addressing some of them.

Most of the time, government entities spend more than they receive in cash revenue. To cover these expenses, they may sell securities called bonds to investors. These securities act like IOUs that the government will repay at a later date with money it has received from tax revenues and other sources. The government is also responsible for regulating the economy to prevent market failures, such as monopolies or negative side effects for third parties, such as pollution.

Whether the government is a democracy, an oligarchy, or autocracy, it must decide what values are most important and how to implement them in practice. For example, if it decides that national security is more important than liberty, it might authorize surveillance of citizens’ private communications and restrict what newspapers can publish. If it is a democracy, it will place a premium on equal treatment for all and the elimination of socioeconomic inequalities.

Some political philosophies are opposed to the existence of government altogether, or at least argue that it has origins in an authoritarian past when warlords and petty despots exercised authority over their territory by force. Others, such as anarchism and Marxism, have more specific beliefs about how a government should be structured and what its duties should be. Regardless of their ideological leanings, most lower-income Americans say they believe the government should be responsible for providing all American residents with a decent standard of living, while fewer middle- and upper-income adults agree with this assessment.