What Is a Government?

A government (from the Latin gubernare – to steer or direct a vessel, ship or boat) is the authority in charge of managing a political unit, organization or State. Governments can take many different forms, based on whether they are controlled by one person (monarchy or oligarchy), a small group of people (an aristocracy or aristocratic republic) or the entire population as a whole (democracy or a democracy). Government also refers to the rules and laws that govern the country or region where it functions, along with the monopoly it has on the legal use of force to enforce those laws and protect citizens from external threats.

Besides providing services like roads, schools, police and mail delivery, government can help citizens with financial problems through food stamps or mortgage interest deductions. It can also provide help with medical costs through Medicare or the ACA health insurance marketplace. Some governments even regulate public access to common goods, like natural resources or wildlife. Governments can control the use of such resources by establishing parks and reserves or by restricting hunting or fishing.

Government is the entity that lays out the parameters of everyday behavior for its citizens, protects them from external interference and provides for their well-being and happiness. It does this through a variety of means, including setting the rules for acquiring and possessing property, imposing taxes and collecting fees, and regulating the use of violence against people who break the law.

The most controversial thing that a government does is provide its citizens with social programs that help them overcome poverty or difficult life circumstances. For example, most European countries provide universal healthcare and extensive welfare programs that assist with housing, food, health care and education. In the United States, these programs began with the New Deal and later President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. While they can help, many people argue that such programs destroy the individual’s sense of responsibility for his or her own well-being and often result in waste and abuse.

In the United States, most government spending falls into two categories: mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory spending includes items such as national security, defense and maintenance of federal buildings and highways. Discretionary spending includes things such as research, education and recreation. Most of the money for these programs is voted on each year through the appropriations process.

Government transparency means ensuring that citizens can see all of the information about their government and how it works. In addition to making the information easy to find, it should be presented in a way that makes sense for citizens. That means leaving out technical jargon and using layman’s terms to explain complex concepts. It also means allowing for meaningful participation by people with disabilities, as required by federal law. Government bodies can do this by offering translation and real-time captioning at public meetings, for example.