Governments are responsible for creating and enforcing the rules that adults live by, protecting citizens, managing the economy, and providing public services. The level of authority of each kind of government differs, but all governments share the same basic function: to lead and protect its people. Governments have been around for thousands of years, but they do not all look or act the same. The main types of government are democracies, authoritarian regimes, and a variety of hybrid systems.
The word government comes from the Latin term gobernare, which means to govern. Governments make and enforce the rules that we all have to follow, and they also judge any conflicts between those rules. Governments do this work on a large scale and are therefore often considered to be powerful institutions. Governments are often thought of as the primary providers of goods and services to their citizens, but they also regulate industries and can impose taxes to raise money for the country. In some cases, governments can even compel individuals to perform certain tasks, such as serving in the military or paying taxes.
In the United States, our national government consists of three branches: the executive branch (president, vice president, and other prominent leaders); the legislative branch (Congress, which includes 435 representatives from each state divided into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate); and the judicial branch (the federal court system). The founding fathers wrote the Constitution, which sets forth the structure of the U.S. government, and years of building upon that framework have created the multi-level, interdisciplinary organization that we now use.
While there are many ways to classify different kinds of governments, the most common approach divides them into two categories: democratic and authoritarian. A central feature of a democratic government is that it enables its citizens to participate in making decisions through their elected officials. In contrast, an authoritarian government concentrates power in the hands of a few—often one political party or individual leader—and remains largely unchecked. Neither of these models is inherently superior to the other; both may be effective in managing a nation.
Whether democratic or not, all governments share the same core functions of providing security and ensuring that people are treated fairly. But the way those functions are carried out varies, as do the specifics of how citizens elect their officials and how they gain and lose control of their country’s assets.
The most common form of government is a democracy, where the majority of the population votes for its representatives in an election. Governments are also classified by the number of people who have authority to make decisions, whether it is a single person (monarchy), a select group of people (aristocracy), the people as a whole (democracy), or a combination of these. There are also less familiar forms of government, including socialism, communism, oligarchy, and autocracy. The modern world is primarily made up of democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian nations, although other forms have existed in the past.