What Is a Government?


A government is the people, laws and officials that define and control the country that you live in. Governments are concerned with public life, though many of the laws that they establish and enforce can regulate what happens in private life as well.

A common example is the environmental regulations that punish businesses that pollute the air or water. A government’s most important function is to protect the rights and safety of its citizens. This includes a strong military and fair court system, and it also involves making sure that there are enough civic amenities to satisfy the needs of the population.

For a government to be effective, it must be perceived as legitimate. This is why the American founding fathers created a constitutional system in which all of the nation’s political power is vested in the people. Their intent was that the people would view their government as an authority that they must respect and obey, even if it disagreed with them on some issues. It is from this understanding of legitimacy that the principle of the social contract, first developed by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is based.

The Constitution lays out a set of rules for creating multi-level, overlapping functions for government, and years of building upon those rules has produced the modern system we know today. In the United States, a federal government consists of executive figureheads like the President and the cabinet; the legislature; and the federal courts system. This is supplemented by national agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are different ideas about what a government should do and what limits it should have, but most contemporary political thinkers agree that the power of a government must be constrained. The most important limit, most believe, is that it must serve the interests of the majority of its citizens, not just those of its members or of its own party.

Another common idea about government is that it should provide goods and services that the marketplace cannot provide in sufficient quantity or at affordable prices. A common example is the police force or the school system, but other examples include health care and national defense. Governments are also tasked with managing the economy. This requires balancing inflation and maintaining stable interest rates, while stimulating economic growth.

In order to be successful, a government must operate within the boundaries of the Constitution and the limits set by the Constitution’s three branches. The branches are meant to provide checks and balances that prevent the Executive Branch from abusing its powers or ignoring the will of Congress, the Legislative Branch. The branches are also expected to cooperate with each other, despite their differences on some issues. This cooperation is called mutual toleration and is an essential part of a functional democracy.