What Is Government and Why Is It Important?

Government is the institution through which leaders exercise power to make and enforce laws. Government is responsible for providing leadership, maintaining order, and delivering public services to citizens such as national security, education, and economic assistance.

A government may consist of many things including a school board, city council, township board of supervisors, county government, state government, federal government, or any other group that has authority over a certain territory and exercises a form of control. Governments come in all shapes and sizes and serve different purposes, but they share the same central function of protecting and ensuring a common good.

Among the most important functions of government are the provision of national security and public goods, or those goods that are available to all people without charge, such as clean water and air. Governments can also provide other valuable services such as police protection, fire fighting, public education, public transportation, mail service, and food, housing, and health care for those who cannot afford them. These services are sometimes called “toll” or “common” goods, and they are essential for a healthy society.

Most governments today are democratic, which means that citizens decide how their governments should be run through representatives elected by the voters and a legislative branch of their government. There are, however, other types of governments, such as authoritarian, in which the decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few (usually the leader of the political party or an individual) and is not subject to any checks and balances.

There are various theories of the origin of government. One theory is that it evolved as people recognized that they could protect themselves better if they banded together into groups. Another is that government grew out of the need to control resources, whether natural or human.

The current pause, perhaps even reversal, in the trend toward increased state intervention in our economic affairs offers an opportunity to reexamine what government does and why it does it. A key question is what role it should play in promoting our values and improving the quality of life for all.

Four in 10 Americans say the government should do more to improve the quality of life, while nearly as many believe the federal government does too much already. A majority of those who say the government should do more think the government is doing a good job protecting their safety and preventing crime, as well as providing education and healthcare. However, only about a third of those who say the government should do more believe that federal taxes and spending are properly balanced. Lesson Handouts