The Basics of Government


Government is the way people organize themselves to accomplish collective goals and to provide benefits that society as a whole needs. Six in seven households receive some kind of government assistance. In the United States, those include public education, the mail service, police and fire protection, food and housing for the poor, and health care for the elderly (Figure 1.2). Government also protects common goods such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water. These goods are free for all to use but may be limited in quantity, so they must be protected so that a few people do not take everything and leave others with nothing.

To accomplish these goals, people must agree on what kinds of laws to make and how to enforce them. The founding fathers of the United States designed a system that gives some authority to city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. These bodies decide what taxes to impose and how the money they raise will be used to fund services such as schools, police and fire departments, and maintenance of roads and parks. They must balance the needs of security with the need to maintain individual liberty, for example by limiting how much law enforcement agencies can spy on citizens.

At the local level, city councils make laws by enacting ordinances, passing resolutions, and establishing budgets. They also set goals for the city and provide recreational, social, and educational services. If an issue is too big to be handled at the local level, such as a crime or a natural disaster, city councils can refer it to higher-level district, appeals, and Supreme Court courts.

State governments have similar roles, but with more authority and larger budgets. At the federal level, Congress makes the laws that govern the entire country and sets budgets for all the government agencies. It also elects the President, who represents the nation at foreign summits and international meetings. The President has the power to make treaties with other countries, but he must consult with the Senate and the House of Representatives before those agreements are finalized.

The Executive Branch enforces the laws and tries to keep all the branches of government in line. The President nominates Supreme Court justices and judges for lower-level courts, but the Senate can approve or reject those nominations. Congress can also impeach a judge, meaning that the judge loses his or her job.

A government is like a family, and it is made up of the branches that have important jobs. The Branches of Government page provides more information on the checks and balances that are used to prevent one branch of government from becoming too powerful. As in any family, the members of a government must be willing to work together despite differences in political ideology and interests. This is known as mutual toleration and forbearance, and it is an essential part of the workings of our democracy. It’s also what allows us to live in peace with our neighbors around the world.