Government is the institution through which leaders exercise power to make and enforce laws. A government can have many purposes, such as maintaining peace, protecting citizens from harm, providing public goods and services, managing national security, promoting economic development, advancing science and education, and preserving natural resources. A government can take many forms, from a monarchy to a democracy. Government can have many powers, including taxing, spending, and regulating businesses.
Government provides public goods and services, such as police departments, fire departments, schools, libraries, and post offices. It also protects citizens from threats, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Government also promotes health and safety, through policies that regulate food, water, air, drugs, and weapons. Its most important job, however, is to provide stability and security for its citizens. This is accomplished at the federal, state, and local levels through police, fire, and military personnel; national parks and wildlife refuges; public education, public transportation, and mail service; and a range of social services such as unemployment insurance and food, housing, and medical care for the poor.
The federal government is a complex entity with three functional branches and numerous independent agencies. The legislative branch (Congress and the Senate) sets laws. The executive branch (the President and the cabinet) carries out those laws. The judicial branch (the Supreme Court and other courts) interprets laws and judges constitutional challenges. The Constitutional structure of checks and balances prevents one branch from exercising too much power over another.
A government also provides a mechanism for citizens to participate in the process of decision making, often through elections and representation on advisory bodies such as councils and juries. There are two kinds of democracies: direct and indirect. In a direct democracy, citizens participate in the governing body by selecting representatives or delegates through elections or, less frequently, through sortition. In an indirect democracy, citizens select a group of citizens to represent them, such as a senate or a jury.
Most governments allow citizens to make their opinions known to those in power through free speech and the press. In some, such as western democracies, citizens can also vote on issues that affect them.
It is important for citizens to understand how their government works and why it is structured the way it is. There are many different political viewpoints, but it is best to explore them all with a healthy dose of skepticism and a desire to learn. Read the news—real news, not infotainment—and seek out opposing viewpoints on any given issue. It is also important to read and listen to history. The study of the past can help to explain the present and make predictions about the future.