What Does a Government Do?
Governments regulate and set the rules for a society. They take care of things like roads, crime, sanitation—things that are hard for households to manage on their own. Governments also make sure that everyone is treated fairly. They enforce laws that prohibit cheating on an exam or submitting someone else’s work as your own.
There are many different ways to organize a government, but most governments have the same basic functions: to protect citizens and their property, provide services, and establish laws. Governments exist at all levels of human organization: the national level, framed by a constitution; state, or territorial, and local governments, which vary from county to town.
Historically, government emerged as people discovered that it was easier to protect themselves and their property if they stayed together in groups. Governments help them manage these groups so they can focus on what’s important to their families, communities, and the larger world in which they live.
Governments also provide protection from outside forces. They build armies to defend against attacks, plan for wars, and create intelligence networks to collect information about enemies.
In addition, governments make decisions about what kind of resources to use, and they regulate access to certain goods—goods that can be used by all people without charge (like air or water) or that can’t be patented (like natural resources). These kinds of resources are known as public goods. Governments can ensure that there is enough of them to go around by taxing and otherwise managing their use.
Another way that governments help citizens is by providing social services. These include schools, police departments, fire departments, and health services. Governments are able to offer these services because they can collect taxes and use them to pay for the staff and equipment needed. Private businesses can’t afford to offer all of these services, so they can’t compete with government agencies.
Lastly, governments are often responsible for regulating the actions of businesses—the rules that govern how they can operate. Governments can pass laws that limit the amount of toxic gases emitted by factories, for example. They can also set standards for cars, toys, and food to ensure that companies are operating ethically.
The best way to understand how a country’s government works is to visit its website and learn about the laws, the constitution, and the people that make up the country’s government. It is also helpful to understand the different levels of government, and how they interact with each other—use our Levels of Government Ladder handout. In the United States, for example, there are three levels of government: the federal level, framed by the Constitution; and the state and local levels, which are modeled after the federal level. Each level can’t pass laws that conflict with the laws of the levels above them. This is referred to as the separation of powers.