The Basics of Government


Government is a group of people who have power to rule a territory, such as a country or state within a country, or a region. They make rules (laws) and use force to compel citizens to follow those laws. The laws might say what behavior is against the law and describe the punishments for doing it. Governments also perform the important task of protecting common goods that everyone may enjoy, such as fish in the sea or clean air.

Most governments are organized into distinct institutions that constitute branches of government with different functions, powers, duties, and responsibilities. The distribution of these powers is based on a set of rules, called a constitutional system, that restricts what the government can do. The rules help ensure that no one branch of government becomes too powerful, a situation called checks and balances.

Typically, people who want to change the way their government operates seek to persuade other citizens to support their ideas in elections or referendums. If they are successful, those ideas become the basis for new policies and new laws. Governments at all levels provide benefits for their citizens, such as education, public safety, medical care, and housing.

To pay for the things they provide, governments collect money from their citizens by imposing taxes and tariffs. They also spend money by establishing budgets and mandating specific spending (earmarks). They can raise funds by selling bonds, raising fees for activities like driving or smoking, or even borrowing money to meet their obligations.

Governments also make rules that govern how citizens interact with each other. They establish property rights and set limits on what people can do with land. Some people think they have the right to own land without permission from the government (libertarianism). Others believe that the government can’t own anything, and they call this anarchism.

The United States is a constitutional republic, meaning that citizens elect representatives to represent them in the national government. The federal government consists of three branches: Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. Congress passes laws for the entire nation. The President makes sure that all branches of the federal government follow those laws. When the President talks with leaders of other countries, he or she represents all Americans. The Supreme Court interprets the laws and rules that Congress and the Executive Branch make.

Lastly, the judicial branch ensures that all laws are fair and equal. This is a vital role that keeps the Constitution alive. If Congress or the President break the rules, they must face consequences in the courts. If the judges believe that the branches broke the Constitution, they can void the law or order the branches to comply. In addition, the judicial branch can review and approve presidential nominees to judge positions in the lower federal courts. This helps keep the courts from becoming too political, which would interfere with their ability to interpret and enforce the laws. This is a separate process from impeachment, which removes a judge from office.