Government is the mechanism by which people organize themselves to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that individuals cannot provide for themselves. Governments are responsible for drafting policy, collecting taxes, enforcing laws, and providing services such as police, fire, and mail delivery. People elect representatives to govern them at the city, state, and national levels to make decisions about these issues. At the federal level, Congress makes decisions about the economy and national security, while state and local governments pass laws and collect taxes to pay for services such as public education and police and fire departments.

Government also regulates access to common goods like natural resources and wildlife. Unlike private goods, such as goods produced by businesses or that can be obtained for a price, these resources are not renewable and must be protected from overuse so that they can be available in the future. Governments can do this by establishing rules that limit how much of these resources a person may take and requiring that the use of certain resources be reported to the government.

In addition, government provides important infrastructure and other services that help ensure that people have a high standard of living. For example, in the United States, government helps to protect citizens from foreign invasion, maintains a system of roads and railroads, provides public education, and provides police and fire protection. These services are sometimes referred to as public goods because they are accessible to all members of the public without charge. The government can provide these public goods by imposing taxes to raise money, or by borrowing money and investing it in these services (see Figure 1.1).

Finally, at the Federal level, Congress makes rules to keep its citizens safe from foreign attack and ensure that all Americans receive a quality education and are provided for in case of an emergency. In addition, Federal agencies enforce and administer the laws passed by Congress and impose regulations on businesses to make sure they operate fairly. For instance, Congress passes laws about the amount of toxic gases that can be released by factories and the purity of food and toys offered for sale. Government agency inspectors check to make sure these laws are followed.

Separation of powers is a concept developed by the founders of the United States to create checks and balances in the government. They believed that it would be impossible to create politicians who were angels and who never tried to grab more power than they should, so the Constitution breaks down responsibilities into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. This gives citizens many opportunities to influence lawmaking and to make their views known in the policymaking process. If a citizen disagrees with a law that Congress makes, they can work to get it overturned through the judicial branch or by persuading the President to veto the law.