What Does a Government Do?

A government is a system of people, laws and officials that define and control the country that you live in. Its responsibilities include setting and enforcing the rules that determine how we should live, as well as taking care of other needs such as defense, foreign affairs, the economy, and public services. But the most important thing a government does is to regulate how people interact with one another. This is called governance, and it is essential to civilized life.

The form that a government takes is different, depending on what philosophy it subscribes to and what type of society it seeks to create. For example, if it wants to promote the ideal of equality (which is often linked with socialism), it may raise taxes to fund public education and transportation and to provide housing and food for the poor. It might also expand the reach of the police force to help prevent racial or other discrimination. On the other hand, if it prioritizes national security over liberty, it may authorize the tapping of phone lines and restrict what newspapers can publish.

Throughout history, governments have often been more concerned with protecting common goods than with economic prosperity or the quality of life. Common goods are things that everyone can use but in limited supply, such as fish in the sea or clean drinking water. They must be protected so that some people do not take everything that is available and leave others with nothing.

At the state and local levels, governments allocate money for such public goods as schools, highways and roads, mail service, parks, fire departments, and policing (Figure 1.3). Federally, they fund the military, Social Security, Medicare, and pensions for veterans. Governments also protect private goods, such as the air and water we breathe and the food we eat. They do this by regulating businesses and enforcing laws that protect consumers and workers.

While the main responsibility of a government is to set and enforce rules, it must also be able to adapt to changing circumstances. In order to do this, it must establish a process for creating and reviewing new regulations. This includes providing opportunities for people to comment on proposed changes and adjusting the drafts based on those comments.

As the world becomes more interconnected, it is essential that governments be able to regulate the activities of global companies, even if they are located in other countries. Governments that can collaborate with businesses while still enforcing consumer-protection and worker-safety laws will be better equipped to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.