What Is Government?

Government is a group of people that rules an organized territory—such as a country or a state within a country—according to administrative law. It enforces laws, collects taxes and prints money, and it has a monopoly on the legal use of force.

A government also determines the rules of behavior for those who live in the territory it governs. This is called civil law, and it includes laws such as those that protect property rights (the right to own things) and the rights of citizens to privacy (the right not to be spied on by the police). Governments also create a structure for providing goods and services that benefit the whole population, such as education, public transportation, police and fire departments, mail service, and food, shelter, and health care. Governments at the city, county, state, and federal levels provide stability and security in the form of military defense and civil police. They also provide services that help people live better lives, such as water and sewage treatment, garbage collection, and street lighting. Governments levy taxes and tariffs to raise money, and they draft budgets that determine how the funds will be spent. Governments also manage common goods, or public goods, which everyone may enjoy but that are limited in supply, such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water.

Different governments have very different ways of doing these things. Some are democratic, in which all citizens make decisions through representatives they elect. Others are authoritarian, in which one political party or leader makes all the decisions. Still other countries combine elements of democratic and authoritarian models, resulting in governments that limit some freedoms but protect others.

How these different parts of government work together to make decisions is complicated. To make things run smoothly, each branch has the power to check the powers of other branches. This is called the system of checks and balances.

In the United States, for example, Congress makes laws to rule the nation, and it establishes an annual budget. To fund the budget, it imposes taxes and tariffs and borrows money when needed. Congress can also mandate spending on specific items, a process known as earmarking.

Congress’s lawmaking power is outlined in the Constitution, and the president has the power to veto bills passed by Congress. If a bill is vetoed, it can only be passed again by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress.

The process of making law is lengthy, but it gives citizens plenty of chances to influence policy by working to persuade Congress or the president to change or pass a law they disagree with. Most governments also give citizens a way to make sure their views are heard by those in power, such as by giving them the right to vote and by protecting freedom of speech and the press. In addition to this, they usually maintain a system of justice that lists the acts that are against the law and describes the punishments for breaking them.