Governments govern by creating laws, regulating the economy and providing services to citizens. Governments also protect citizens from crime and provide opportunities for civic participation. In the United States, federal, state and local governments touch vast facets of residents’ lives. Greater government transparency can help communities understand how their tax dollars are spent.
Many government jobs are in the executive branch, where departments oversee all the government’s functions. For example, a statistician might work in the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the Department of Labor, and a physician might work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Department of Health and Human Services. A very small percentage of government jobs are in the legislative branch, where members of Congress create laws and vote on bills.
Modern government classification systems usually identify three main types of political systems: democracies, totalitarian regimes and authoritarian regimes with a range of hybrid forms in between. The categories sometimes overlap and the distinctions are often fluid.
In addition to protecting citizens from crime and providing services, most governments regulate access to common goods like natural resources, education and public lands. These are in limited supply, and if too many people freely take from them, there will not be enough left for others. Governments can also regulate the activities of businesses, creating and enforcing consumer-protection, worker-safety and other rules that promote fair competition. Many businesses complain about these rules, but they are essential to a civilized competitive business environment.
A basic function of government is to protect the rights of individuals, including the freedom of speech and press and the right to vote. Governments also can promote civic participation by establishing schools, libraries and museums and providing recreational facilities. They can protect the environment by regulating industrial pollution and conservation efforts. They can even provide emergency assistance, as demonstrated by the massive federal relief effort during the 2020 pandemic.
Governments can make people’s lives easier by providing food, housing and other necessities. They can also help them deal with life’s challenges by ensuring they have access to medical care, financial aid, social security and disability benefits. They can also provide a way for residents to connect with resources that can help them pay bills, buy a new car or put a down payment on a home. In some cases, they can help them with a job or a new skill that will lead to economic security. Lastly, they can encourage civic participation by holding elections, setting public records open and allowing residents to participate in the decision-making process through public meetings or consultations. They can promote transparency by making financial data available to the public and requiring high-ranking officials to disclose their assets and potential conflicts of interest. They can also support financial stability by providing grants and loans to those in need, such as the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program and the Flexible Spending Accounts for the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance program.