The Basics of Government

Government is the system of rules and laws that make up a society. Government sets the limits of people’s behavior and protects citizens from outside interference or harm. Governments also provide the infrastructure to ensure that basic needs are met. Examples include schools, transportation, healthcare, and the maintenance of national parks. Government also provides security by protecting private property and individuals from outside attack or theft. Governments set the priorities for how taxpayer money should be spent, such as national defense, education, welfare, or health care. Government also decides what laws should be passed or not passed. The United States Constitution defines the structure of our federal government, which is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to make laws. This branch includes the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as a number of offices and agencies that support Congress. The President nominates Supreme Court justices and judges, and Congress can confirm or reject those nominations. The executive branch, which is made up of the Cabinet and the President, has the power to carry out the laws. The judicial branch interprets the laws, and the Congress can overturn those interpretations by passing new legislation. This system of checks and balances is designed to keep the powers of the executive and judicial branches in check.

Different governments have different priorities and goals. For example, if the government values national security over individual liberty, it may authorize the tapping of phones and restrict what newspapers can publish. Or, if the government values social equality and economic freedom, it might promote policies that help poor families by providing tax breaks, affordable housing, and education.

Governments can be based on different ideals, such as democracy, monarchy, autocracy, oligarchy, or communism. Democracies involve the direct participation of citizens as members of a participatory governing body, such as a legislature or jury. Oligarchies are systems of minority rule by a wealthy ruling class, such as a landed aristocracy or a plutocracy. Monarchies are systems of rule by hereditary royalty. Other governments have a mixture of these types of power-sharing arrangements.

Most Americans believe the federal government should focus on a limited number of major priorities. Those include health care, national defense, education, transportation and infrastructure, and energy. More than six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while those ages 30 to 49 are split almost evenly. There are significant differences by race and age among those who favor a larger or smaller government. Black and Hispanic adults are much more likely than whites to favor a smaller government providing fewer services. Overall, men are more likely than women to favor a larger government.