The Basics of Government

Governments set standards and responsibilities for citizens, protect them from outside interference and often provide benefits. Regardless of the form they take, governments must be organized to function properly and to serve people’s needs. Governments have been part of human life for thousands of years, and ideas about the proper structure of government are subject to change over time. Governments have been described as monarchy, oligarchy, democracy (direct or representative) and many other political systems. Government may be a single person or an organization, such as a corporation or school.

Government is a complex, interrelated system of laws and policies that determines the way a society is run. The term “government” generally refers to the entity that controls a state or country, but it also can apply to any institution or group that manages an organizational activity or project. Typically, government involves a legislature, executive and judiciary that enforces rules and makes decisions.

Traditionally, many people have viewed the purpose of government as protecting individuals from the abuses and whims of other people or institutions. Governments make and enforce laws, collect taxes, print money and impose penalties for violating them. They also perform the vital service of protecting common goods, such as clean water or fish in the sea. Governments also are essential for ensuring that private businesses do not monopolize certain types of goods or services.

In the United States, Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) enact laws, and the president signs them into law. The separation of powers and checks and balances built into our Constitution limit the power of the executive branch, which consists of the president and cabinet secretaries. The House and Senate must approve (give “advice and consent”) to presidential appointments, including Supreme Court justices, federal judges and department secretaries, and ambassadors.

The Framers designed our system of government to ensure that the government does not get out of control. To prevent this, they placed limits on the powers of the legislature and created a lengthy process for passing bills into law. The approval of both chambers is required for all legislation, and it may only become law if the president signs it or if the House and Senate re-pass it with a two-thirds majority after the president has vetoed it.

The ancient Greek writers Plato and Aristotle theorized a lot about the nature of government and different ways it could be structured. They favored aristocracy, a small group of privileged citizens who are thought to be morally and intellectually superior and fit to lead. Aristocratic systems are rarely found in modern times, however. Typically, a nation’s leaders are elected by the people through a democratic system.