Government is the system of people, laws and officials that define and control a country. Governments govern what happens in public life — streets, parks and schools — but many of their laws can regulate what happens in private life, too. Governments provide certain services that citizens need but are unwilling or unable to supply themselves, such as defense and social safety nets. The nature and role of governments has evolved throughout history and is highly dependent on local conditions. Different forms of government have emerged and disappeared as conditions changed, but four main types are broadly recognized.

One of the oldest justifications for government is protection: preventing violence among citizens and foreign foes. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan describes a world of unrelenting insecurity that would otherwise leave citizens vulnerable to the depredations of warring factions and desperate for any kind of authority to protect them. That basic function is evident globally in fragile states and largely ungoverned regions. It is why even tyrannical and oppressive governments are sometimes chosen over chaos and violence.

Other justifications for government focus on economic development: providing the means to live a decent life. The most important of these is the creation and enforcement of property rights, which allows individuals to acquire the resources needed to secure a livelihood, including land and businesses. A second is the ability to provide education and medical care, which allow individuals to obtain the skills necessary to compete in a modern economy. Finally, governments also provide infrastructure such as roads and railroads, which help make businesses more competitive by providing a reliable transportation network.

A fourth justification for government focuses on the right to self-determination of citizens. A popular form of this is the stateless society, which is a type of anarchism that advocates for self-governing communities based on voluntary institutions. These can be anything from nonhierarchical groups to hierarchical organizations, as long as membership and association are completely voluntary. Advocates of this model suggest that the only legitimate governmental functions are to prevent violence, enforce law and secure property rights.

Whether we have a constitutional monarchy, a republic or some other type of government, there are certain core characteristics that all systems must possess to be considered democratic, inclusive and responsive to its citizens. These include majority rule with minority rights, accountability (elections and term limits), checks and balances and economic freedom – including the ownership of property – along with equality and individual and human rights.

The Founders of our country were clear that our form of government must respect the rights of its citizens, and the most fundamental of those rights is the right to citizenship. This has always been a core value of our democracy, and a central theme of the Declaration of Independence is the Founders’ belief that “all men are created equal.” The right to participate in politics is a crucial part of this, and to be a citizen, you must be able to vote. To do that, you must be a registered voter.