The Basics of Government


Government is a system of people, laws, and officials that define and control the country that you live in. Governments govern a lot of things that happen in the public sector—including schools, hospitals, and roads—but also have a hand in many private actions, too. Governments are usually concerned with the rules of life, and the people who make them up and enforce them are known as “politicians.”

What do you think about when you hear the word government? Americans often picture the Capitol Building in Washington, while Britons think of the Houses of Parliament in London. Etymology—the study of the origin of words—shows that government has a long history. The earliest forms of rule were either by one person (a monarchy or an aristocracy) or by the group as a whole (a democracy). Later, humans began to classify the different kinds of government based on how much power they held over citizens.

The word “government” is a broad term and can mean any kind of political authority that makes decisions for an organized community, like a city or a state. It can also refer to the laws and rules of a particular country or region, or to a national or international organization that works for the benefit of its members.

In the United States, our federal government includes the executive branch—which includes the president, vice president, and major departments of the executive cabinet—the legislative branch, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate; and the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court and lower courts. Each of these branches makes and implements laws, and each is empowered to check the other two—and to veto laws that they disagree with.

Aside from providing security for its employees and enforcing laws, a good government should provide citizens with a wide range of services, including health, education, and transportation. Ideally, it should be efficient and responsive to the needs of the citizenry, and it should respect the diversity of its citizens.

Another important point is that a good government should not interfere in the lives of its citizens—and it should not be used to advance the interests of one political party over another. This principle is often called “mutual toleration,” and it requires that politicians accept their opponents as legitimate, even if they vehemently disagree with them.

Local governments may also have councils that oversee a city’s legislature; municipal courts, which handle low-level crimes and other civil cases; and higher-level district or circuit courts. The Constitution provides a framework for creating these kinds of governments, and years of building on those principles have created the multi-layered system that we call the federal government today. In addition, many states have their own unique systems of local and regional government.