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What is Government? - Definition, Role & Functions

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  • 0:02 What Is Government?
  • 2:28 Purpose of U.S. Government
  • 2:53 Role of Government
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the various definitions of government. Then we will take a close look at the functions of the U.S. government and the role it plays in citizens' everyday lives.

What Is Government?

What do you think of when you hear the word 'government'? Does the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., come to mind? Maybe you get a mental picture of the president or Congress. You might even think about words like 'power' or 'control' or 'rules' or 'politics.' But can you define 'government'? Take a moment and try.

It's hard, isn't it? Government is so ingrained in our culture and so much a part of our everyday lives that most of us, when asked, can't offer a very good definition of the actual word. Defining government, however, is the starting point for any study of the United States governmental system.

Dictionaries and scholars define government in different ways. Let's build a word map to help us sort out these definitions. We'll begin by writing the word 'government' and circling it. Then we'll draw lines connecting each definition to our central term.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers three definitions of government:

1. 'the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.'

2. 'a particular system used for controlling a country, state, etc.'

3. 'the process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.'

Notice here that government can be defined by the people involved, the system in place, or the process in use.

Dr. Harold Damerow, a professor of government and history, gets a bit more specific with his definition. He says that government is 'responsible primarily for making public policy for an entire society.' He also mentions that government is 'the steering mechanism for a given society.' It forms the policies that keep a particular society heading in the right direction.

Finally, Black's Law Dictionary mentions that institutions of the government 'regulate the relationships among members of a society and between the society and outsiders' and that they 'have the authority to make decisions for the society' to meet goals and maintain order.

While all of these definitions help us grasp the meaning of the word 'government,' they provide a lot to remember, so let's summarize. Government, whether we refer to the system or institutions in operation, the group of people in charge, or the process in use, is the authority that sets rules for a society, helps its members relate to one another and to others, and keeps it running smoothly, securely, and peacefully.

Purpose of U.S. Government

Now we'll turn our attention to the specific functions of the United States government, which are found in the Constitution's preamble. Here they are:

1. 'To form a more perfect Union'

2. 'To establish Justice'

3. 'To insure domestic Tranquility'

4. 'To provide for the common defense'

5. 'To promote the general Welfare'

6. 'To secure the Blessings of Liberty'

Role of Government

Looking at the above functions, you might be wondering what they mean for you and for other citizens on a daily basis. Let's examine a few of the governmental responsibilities that fall under each Constitutional function.

1. 'To form a more perfect Union' - The government keeps the country united and helps form a sense of community, patriotism, and national pride. It does this in part by maintaining national monuments and hosting celebrations on Independence Day and other national holidays.

2. 'To establish Justice' - This means the establishment of a the justice system at the federal, state and local levels. This encompasses entities at the federal level such as the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as local police forces and municipal courts.

3. 'To insure domestic Tranquility' - The government makes laws to discourage wrongdoing and keep society safe. It also enforces these laws, maintains order, resolves disputes, and punishes those who break the law, thereby allowing citizens to peacefully pursue their daily lives and hold on to their money and private property.

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