Governments set rules for everyday behavior for people, protect them from outside interference and often provide valuable goods and services to their citizens. They also establish a structure by which the benefits of these goods and services can be shared and distributed. Governments vary in size, scope and power from region to region, but many share certain major characteristics.
The term “government” is derived from the Greek word kubernan, meaning “to steer.” Governments take on different forms in the course of history, reflecting the needs and values of societies in which they arise. A government can be a civil, military or religious organization or any group with the authority to make and enforce laws. The purpose of these organizations varies from place to place, and can include the regulation of commerce, religion or education, among others.
Some governments may be created for economic or social reasons. In general, the most common form of government is a democratic republic, which enables voters to choose their own leaders and laws. In the United States, for example, citizens vote to elect representatives to city councils, state legislatures and Congress. These bodies make laws to govern their jurisdictions and draft budgets that determine how the money collected from taxes will be spent for services. Local, state and national government agencies then receive funds from these budgets to provide goods and services.
Governments are usually established to provide services for all people, or at least a majority of them. This enables the distribution of goods and services such as police, fire departments, roads, schools and national parks. The value of these services to a community is usually recognized by the people, so they are willing to pay for them. Governments also impose taxes, such as income and property taxes, to raise the money to pay for these services.
There are four major theories about why governments exist. They range from the idea that governments create a structure by which goods and services can be shared and distributed to ideas that advocate for governments to act as an alternative to market exchanges. These alternatives are only useful when their benefits exceed the costs to society.
In some cases, government action may actually improve the functioning of markets. For example, it is in the interest of society to discourage monopolies and cartels that limit open competition and reduce consumer choice and efficiency. Governments can help to do this by enacting antitrust and competition laws.
Other theories argue that governments serve a spiritual or moral function by encouraging virtue and punishing vice, and by protecting tradition and family values. Some theorists even suggest that government was ordained by a higher power, like God or nature, and human beings have a duty to obey it.