Government is the means through which people organize themselves in order to accomplish shared goals and provide benefits that benefit society as a whole. The specific goals and benefits that governments pursue vary widely by country, but include economic prosperity, secure national borders, safety and security for citizens, and the provision of such things as education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation. Governments also protect what are called public goods, goods that everyone may use but which have a limited supply, such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water (Figure 1.2). They also provide services such as mail service, police and fire departments, and food, housing, and health care for the poor.

In democratic nations, people decide how their governments should operate through the political process by voting for representatives who will represent their interests in a centralized system of government. In authoritarian nations, power is concentrated in the hands of a few leaders or in one political party and remains unchecked. Despite these differences, all forms of government have the same central function of leading and protecting their citizens.

To understand the role of government in the world, it is useful to start with a clear definition. Government is the set of rules and powers that a society creates to address problems that cannot be solved through self-organization alone. It includes the rules that determine how authority is allocated between different levels of government and among those involved in addressing society’s problems. The rules governing the relationship between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of a nation’s government are usually set forth in a constitution or in laws.

For example, the constitution in the United States outlines the modality of designation, missions, and powers of the federal government. In addition to local city councils and township board of supervisors, the federal government comprises the president and the major departments in the executive branch; the Congress and its committees; and the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Each of these has a particular role in enforcing the Constitution and laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

The functions of each level of government are further defined by a system of checks and balances. For example, the President has the power to veto legislation passed by Congress, but the Congress can override the president’s veto with two-thirds of the votes in both houses of Congress. In addition, the Supreme Court and other federal courts have the power to declare whether laws or presidential actions are constitutional or not.

It is important to have an accurate view of the roles and responsibilities of each level of government in your country. You can begin to develop this view by reading textbooks, key political texts, and books on political history. You can find a broad range of these materials at your local library, through local bookstores and college book stores, or by searching for government-related websites.