The Basic Functions of Government

Government is the means by which people organize themselves in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that are needed by everyone. Those goals and the means for accomplishing them vary widely, but all governments have some level of authority, rules, and responsibilities to manage. Governments also perform the important job of protecting common goods (goods that everyone can use free of charge but that are in limited supply, such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water) so a few people do not take everything and leave others with nothing.

Governments may also create and enforce laws that define how citizens should behave in society. For example, some laws protect people’s property rights, while other laws prevent people from injuring other people or damaging the environment. In addition, many governments help citizens meet their basic needs by providing services like schools, hospitals, roads, and mail service. Governments may also provide programs to alleviate poverty in the form of jobs, food, and health care. Governments often debate the role of these social programs and whether they help or harm society.

People who live in societies with different types of government choose how to govern themselves, and those choices reflect the values that they hold most dear. For instance, if people value national security more than they do liberty, then they might be willing to allow government agencies to tap citizens’ phones and restrict what newspapers can publish.

Another key function of a government is to set priorities for spending money. For example, state governments might allocate funds for things like the construction and maintenance of highways, university scholarships, and wildlife management. These priorities are decided by a process called elections. Those elected to represent a particular community have the right to decide how the money they receive will be spent, and they can reject proposals that would not serve their constituents’ interests.

Another way that governments prioritize is by creating a system of checks and balances to ensure that one branch of the government does not exercise too much power over another. This is a feature that is present in the United States, as well as most countries with democratic forms of government. James Madison explained this concept in Federalist No. 51, a famous essay that continues to be cited by students studying government and constitutional law. The national level, framed by the Constitution, is the top rung of this ladder. The next rungs are the state and local levels, which have the ability to pass laws that do not conflict with the decisions/laws of the national level. The local level is where the most direct interaction between citizens and their government occurs. Local governments are usually responsible for things like police departments, fire departments, and school districts. Local governments can also pass laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating against individuals based on race or religion. However, the local level has less authority to regulate environmental quality or to make laws that affect national security.