Governments are the institutions by which societies organize themselves to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that individuals can not do on their own. Most governments provide basic goods and services like education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation. They also manage public lands and wildlife. In addition, most governments maintain law and order, preventing crime and keeping citizens safe. Governments do all these things with taxes and a variety of other methods.
The oldest and simplest justification for government is that it protects people from violence and from the worst vicissitudes of life. The horrors of a world without this function are on constant display in fragile states and essentially ungoverned regions. Governments are also a necessary protector against foreign threats, maintaining armed forces to keep peace with hostile neighbors or terrorists.
Providing citizens with the opportunity to participate in their governments and make their opinions known to those in power is also an essential function of government. For example, in the United States and other western democracies, citizens vote for their representatives to city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. Governments also provide laws that guarantee citizens their rights, including the freedom of speech and press. They also enforce contracts and property rights, a necessity for economic development.
A more controversial function of government is to ensure the security of a nation against external attack and internal turmoil. Governments do this by protecting borders, maintaining armed forces to prevent war, and preventing the entry of aliens who may be spies or terrorists. They also control the export of materials that might aid a potential enemy and conduct intelligence activities to spot threats.
Governments are also responsible for preserving the economy and providing citizens with jobs. They do this by regulating the production and distribution of goods, promoting certain businesses, and managing national finances. For example, a government might require a minimum wage or restrict the sale of certain products.
In the modern era, governments have expanded beyond this defensive or negative role to become active forces in guiding social and economic change. Governments take a range of positions in a country’s economy, from those that favor a command economy to those that support free-market competition. Governments are also increasingly responsible for providing a wide array of services, such as social insurance, health care, and education.
The ideal of a functioning democracy includes the separation of powers and checks and balances among branches of government, majority rule with respect for minority rights, economic liberty, and fair and impartial courts. Government officials must be accountable for their actions, and they should be held to high ethical standards. In addition, all citizens should have the right to protest their government and to seek redress from its offices when they feel wronged. This is often called the right to petition. While a democratic system is the best way to govern, it is not always possible. In some countries, dictatorships are still the only means to rule.