The Basics of Government


A government is a group of people that have the power to rule over a territory. This can be a nation, a country or a region within a larger country. Governments have many different functions, including making laws, collecting taxes and managing public goods like roads and hospitals. They also have a monopoly on the legal use of force.

Most governments have rules that prohibit certain activities, such as murder, drug dealing and theft. Governments also have a system of justice that lists the crimes that are illegal and describes the punishments for breaking those laws. Governments have police forces that enforce these laws.

Almost all governments tax citizens to pay for their services. The money collected goes to things that the government thinks are important, such as education, the military, infrastructure (roads, bridges and mail services) and care for the elderly and poor. Government leaders often take these priorities into account when making policy. But they must also balance them with other issues, such as how much to spend on a war or how to handle climate change.

In the United States, government is composed of two branches: Congress and the president. Congress makes the laws that the country follows. Its members are elected to represent their state in a House of Representatives and a Senate. A bill starts out as an idea that a member of either chamber puts forward. If more than half of the members who vote on it approve, the bill becomes a law. If a law has major flaws, or if the president believes it will not achieve its intended purposes, he or she can veto it. The president oversees the many departments and offices that make up the executive branch of government. The president also appoints the heads of these departments, which form a group known as the Cabinet.

The purpose of a separation of powers and checks and balances in government is to limit the power that any one person or party can acquire over time. James Madison, in Federalist 51, explained this in simple terms: “It is impossible to make all politicians angels; therefore it becomes necessary to organize the government in a way that will check ambition.”

The role of a government today is to protect its citizens from threats to their safety and well-being. That includes preventing crime, fighting terrorists and responding to natural disasters. It also determines how to address complex problems such as climate change, global warming and pandemics. Where your government lies on the spectrum between democracy and authoritarianism determines whether your voice will be amplified or diluted when it comes to making these decisions. The right to know how your government makes these determinations, and to review the documents and statistics that lead to those decisions, is fundamental to our society. It is not possible to maintain a free and open society when that information is hidden under a cloak of secrecy. This article makes sure that all citizens can access the records their governments hold.