Governments around the world have similar goals – to protect citizens, provide services and goods that all members of society need, secure borders, and ensure economic prosperity. They also vary in their methods – from democratic systems where people decide what policies should be created and executed by elected officials, to authoritarian governments that limit freedoms but preserve order. Governments are complex institutions with many levels of interaction, and the exact boundaries between types of government often remain blurry or ill-defined.
For example, if you are a member of an organisation that seeks to change the way your city runs, you might be able to join local committees and councils to help influence policy making. You can even become a member of your community’s local board of directors or mayor. In addition to these formal roles, you may also engage in activities like litter-clearing or forming care cooperatives with your neighbours to tackle problems such as the lack of affordable housing or poor road infrastructure. You can be engaged in citizen participation, and the role of the government in this changing society is shifting from providing goods to enabling citizens to get things done by themselves.
Governments need to be financed to support their functions. To do this, they collect taxes from people – income, property and consumption taxes are common – and these funds are used for different purposes at the national, state and local level. The federal government, for instance, allocates money to its various departments that oversee things such as education, military protection, environmental regulation and national parks management. The states allocate money to their universities, roads and bridges. Local government bodies – such as city councils, county boards of supervisors and townships – spend their own local funds on things that benefit the people living in their area. For example, a city council might approve money for public art projects, playgrounds or libraries.
Some of the most important things governments do are to regulate access to “common” natural resources such as water, air and wildlife. Unlike private goods, such as schools or homes, which are privately owned and can be sold or rented, common resources are in limited supply, and if too many people take freely from them they will be depleted and not available to others. Governments can set limits on the amount of resources that can be used, and they can also step in when market forces fail to solve collective action problems, such as pollution, through a legal system.
Governments can also redistribute income through welfare programs such as unemployment benefits, Social Security and pensions for veterans. In addition, they often limit the power of corporations through laws that prevent them from monopolizing markets and causing negative side effects for third parties, such as polluting. There is much debate about how much power and control a government should have, and it can be difficult to balance the competing interests of equality and liberty.