What Is Government?
Government is the system of law and administration that a state, community or nation uses to rule itself. It sets the rules that govern behavior, protects citizens from outside interference and provides for basic needs. Governments come in many forms and styles, but their central function is to govern.
Governments are essential to human society and provide stability, protection from violence and the worst vicissitudes of life, and public goods that cannot be privately produced in enough quantity or at low enough costs to meet the demands of all members of the community. Examples include national security and education. Governments are able to produce these public goods because they can tax and draw upon the resources of an entire nation. They also have the ability to compel citizen compliance.
People may disagree about the form of government that is best, but they all agree that a government is necessary for society. In his essay, “Government,” Jeremy Bentham writes that it is impossible to have an ideal form of government because the world is too complex and dynamic for a single model to be effective. Instead, governments should be designed to fit the context of the country or region and should have different elements that reflect local conditions.
Ideally, governments should provide for the most fundamental needs of their citizens, such as food, shelter and health care. In addition, they should promote freedom and provide a safety net for the weakest citizens. Governments should also limit their power and ensure that citizens’ rights are protected. They should be transparent and accountable to their citizens. They should be free of corruption and abuse of power, and they should use checks and balances to prevent these occurrences.
The Constitution of a state or nation establishes the structure, powers and rules that make up a government. At the local level, citizens elect representatives to city councils and other bodies that make laws for their communities. At the state level, citizens elect state legislators and a governor. At the federal level, they elect a president and Congress, which makes laws for the whole nation. The Supreme Court and other courts judge whether or not laws are constitutional. In this way, each branch of government serves as a check on the others and deters corruption.
Despite these checks and balances, many people have the impression that the government is corrupt or out of control. This is often because the media covers scandals or the political environment is polarized. However, the reality is that it is almost impossible to keep politicians totally honest because of their ambitions. James Madison argued that the most practical solution was to separate the branches of government and design them so that politicians must compete with one another for power and influence. This is called the separation of powers and it deters corruption by requiring politicians to choose between competing causes. In addition, the system of checks and balances helps to counteract the natural tendency of some groups of politicians to gather power in their hands.