Government is the means by which a nation, state or other political unit establishes and enforces laws and provides services for its citizens. The specific responsibilities and duties of government vary by country, but the common goals include economic prosperity for all people, security for national borders and safety and well-being for citizens. Governments are typically organized into branches, with different powers, functions and responsibilities. Most governments have a constitution that defines their philosophy and sets out the principles by which they are to be operated.
Whether it’s a city council, state legislature or Congress, government creates the structure by which goods and services can be made available to the public. Governments make laws to regulate behavior and set standards for quality, and they draft budgets to determine how funds will be distributed for different programs. Governments also raise money by imposing taxes on income, property and sales. Governments may also borrow money to supplement budgets or to finance large projects such as building airports and highways.
One of the most important roles of any government is protecting a nation’s common goods, those natural resources that are free to all but are in limited supply. Governments need to protect these goods so that a few people don’t take too much, leaving others with nothing. Governments are also essential to providing the social goods of national defense, education and health care.
A government’s ability to protect the interests of all citizens requires that it have a certain level of legitimacy, or popular support. Governments are able to build support through elections, where people choose representatives to represent their interests in the legislative and executive branches of government. Governments also need to be fair and just. They should allow for minority rights and limit the power of officials so they cannot abuse their position. They should also provide checks and balances, such as a free press, an independent judiciary and competing political parties to provide voters with choices.
The type of government that a nation chooses is based on its own beliefs and values, as well as the needs of the people in the nation’s various regions. Modern classification systems for government types include democracies, totalitarian regimes and a number of hybrids. Other historical forms of government include monarchies, aristocracies, timocracies, oligarchies and theocracies.
The United States has a three-branch Federal government — the legislative branch, which is composed of Congress and the President; the executive branch, led by the Vice President and the heads of executive departments; and the judicial branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and all other courts. This distribution of powers is known as separation of powers and is a key feature of American government.