Government comprises the set of legal and political institutions that regulate the relationships among members of a society and between the society and outsiders. These institutions have the authority to make decisions for the society on policies affecting the maintenance of order and the achievement of certain societal goals. This article provides an overview of the types of government, the ways authority can be distributed, the divisions of government, and the functions of government. Separate articles deal with the origins and development of the concept of the state, the theoretical and practical development of representation, law, and the study of government.
The power of a government over its own citizens varies, depending on the degree to which it is free of limitations and restraints. The power of a government abroad also varies, depending on the human and material resources with which it can support its foreign policy. Governments range in size and scope from clans, tribes, and the shires of early times to the superpowers and international governments of today. Until recent times some governments were strong enough to establish empires that ruled not only their own people but other peoples and states across national, ethnic, and language boundaries. The present-day counterpart of the empire is the superpower that is able to lead or dominate other countries through its superior military and economic strength. Within the modern nation-state, government operates at many different levels, ranging from villages to cities, counties, provinces, and states.
Types of Government
Aristotle, a Greek political philosopher of the 4th century B.C., distinguished three principal kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (a kind of enlightened democracy). The differences among them chiefly concerned whether power were held by one, by a few, or by many. Aristotle thought that the selfish abuse of power caused each type to become perverted, respectively, into tyranny, oligarchy, and a lower form of democracy characterized by mob rule. Monarchy tended to become tyrannical because it vested authority in a single ruler. Aristocracy, a government based on birth and privilege, in which the rulers governed for the good of the whole society, tended to become oligarchy as a consequence of restricting political power to a special social and economic class; only a few members of the class would have enough drive and ability to acquire the power to govern. The polity, likewise, would deteriorate into ochlocracy, or mob rule, if the citizens pursued only their selfish interests.
Aristotle’s classifications suited the societies of ancient times, but they do not correspond to the power structure of later societies. Modern writers have developed a variety of schemes for classifying governments, based on the nature of the ruling class, the economic system, the government’s political institutions, the principles of authority, the acquisition and exercise of power, and other factors. Some influential writers on government include Thomas Hobbes, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and the sociologist Max Weber.
The most common form of government from ancient times to the early part of the 20th century was monarchy, or rule by a hereditary king or queen. Monarchy passed through three basic stages, varying according to the nation and the political and economic climate. The first stage was that of the absolute monarch. In the Christian part of the world during the Middle Ages, a conflict developed between the pope and the kings who recognized his spiritual authority. The pope wanted to expand the power of the church beyond spiritual matters to include the temporal realm. But some kings proclaimed that God had given them the right to rule, and by proclaiming this divine right they were able to give legitimacy to their reigns and limit the pope’s power.
Limited monarchy was the second stage. Kings depended on the support of the most powerful members of the nobility to retain their thrones. In England and some other Western European countries, the nobility placed limits on the power of the ruler to govern. This was done in England, for example, through the Magna Carta. Threatened with the loss of political and financial support, even the strongest kings and emperors had to accept a system of laws that protected the rights and privileges of powerful social and economic classes.
The third stage in the evolution of monarchy was the constitutional monarchy. Present-day monarchs are nearly all symbolic rather than actual rulers of their countries. (A few exceptions can be found in Africa and Asia.) In such monarchies as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain, governing power is now in the hands of the national parliaments.
Today most governments derive their legitimacy from national constitutions that provide a legal framework for their rule and specify how power is to be exercised and controlled. Even one-party states, such as the traditional Communist countries and other nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, have found it necessary to establish formal constitutions. In democratic countries the constitution can be amended or replaced by popular vote, either directly or through a system of elected representatives. In authoritarian one-party systems, however, all political power, including that of revising the constitution, resides with the leaders of the party. The constitution may thus be only a paper facade, and in order to understand how the country is governed one must examine the actual political process.
Representative government in the modern world is based not only on a constitution that provides for it but on the actual rule of law — the assurance that provisions of the constitution will be enforced. It requires that citizens be free to organize competing political parties, engage in political campaigns, and hold elections according to agreed-upon rules. Democratic governments vary in structure. Two common forms are the parliamentary and the presidential. In the parliamentary form of government, as in Australia, Britain, Canada, or India, all political power is concentrated in the parliament or legislature. The prime minister or premier and the officers of the cabinet are members of the parliament. They continue in office only as long as parliament supports — or has “confidence” in — their policies. In the presidential form of government, as in France and the United States, the voters elect a powerful chief executive who is independent of the legislature but whose actions are delimited by constitutional and other legal restraints.
As a form of government, dictatorship is principally a 20th-century phenomenon. The dictator, often a military leader, concentrates political power in himself and his clique. There is no effective rule of law. The regime may or may not have a distinctive political ideology and may or may not allow token opposition. The main function of a dictatorship is to maintain control of all governmental operations. There have been some cases — Indira Gandhi in India and several military dictatorships in Latin America — in which authoritarian rulers have relaxed their control and have even allowed open elections. In certain Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe dictators were forced from power in bloodless coups or voluntarily relinquished their authority to popularly elected officials as Soviet power declined.
The totalitarian dictatorship, as in Nazi Germany, Communist China, and the former USSR, is much more thoroughgoing. It seeks to control all aspects of national life, including the beliefs and attitudes of its people. It has a set of ideas that everyone is expected to embrace, such as revolutionary Marxism or counterrevolutionary fascism. At its most extreme, as during the leadership of Joseph Stalin in the USSR, the power of the dictator may become more absolute than in any of the earlier forms of tyranny. Such gross power in the hands of one person results inevitably in the development of what has been called a cult of personality. The leader is credited with almost infallible wisdom, because to admit that he or she may be wrong would deprive the regime of its authority. In some Communist countries the cult of personality appears to have given way to the dominance of a group of party leaders — a ruling oligarchy. The administrative complexities of managing a modern industrial state are too great to be monopolized by an individual leader such as Stalin or Mao Zedong(Mao Tse-tung). The successor regime in China, for example, continues to claim infallibility for its policies and doctrines but not for the leaders. Examples of 20th-century dictators in addition to those already mentioned include Idi Amin Dada(Uganda), Kemal Atatürk (Turkey), Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro (Cuba), Francisco Franco (Spain), Saddam Hussein(Iraq), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Juan Peron (Argentina), and António Salazar (Portugal).
Distribution of Authority
Effective government in any form requires a workable method for distributing authority within the country. The larger and more diverse the jurisdiction of the government, the stronger the tendency toward a federal system in which authority is “layered” or distributed among different levels. In countries with a relatively homogeneous population and with a common tradition, language, and sense of national history, the central governments may not be federal but unitary — that is, they may retain most of the administrative power at the center. Loosely allied autonomous states sometimes join together to create a type of central government known as a confederation, in which the central government exists only at the pleasure of the sovereign members.
The United States and India with their state governments and Canada and China with their provincial governments are examples of workable federal systems in large nations with very diverse populations. Other federal states include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and Germany. The national governments of these countries are clearly more powerful than those of their subdivisions, even though the constitutions delegate many powers and responsibilities to the sub-national units. In certain prescribed policy areas a state government may have a high degree of autonomy. In the United States, for example, state legislatures pass laws having to do with state affairs; state administrators carry them out; and state judiciaries interpret them.
Federal systems also include autonomous local governments such as county governments and municipal governments — in cities, boroughs, townships, and villages local governments may stand in a relationship to their state governments that corresponds to that of state governments with the national government. The citizens in each jurisdiction elect many of the public officials. In addition, certain special districts exist with a single function, such as education or sanitation, and have their own elected officials.
The layers of government in a federal system may not be clearly defined in practice. Often the different levels compete for control of functions and programs. In the United States and other countries the tendency over the years has been for the national government to become much more involved in areas that once were the exclusive domain of state or regional governments. In addition, the distribution of authority has become even more complex and varied with the rise of large metropolitan areas — the megalopolis — and the corresponding new local governmental organizations such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In unitary states the national government performs all the governmental functions. Sub-national national units administer matters within their jurisdiction, but their powers are set and delegated by the national authority. The national government retains the police power — the inherent power to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. Taxation and major lawmaking powers also rest almost entirely with the national government.
Most nations are unitary states, but their institutions and processes may differ markedly. Great Britain, for example, is considered a unitary system, yet a certain degree of regional autonomy exists in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and local county governments perform certain fairly autonomous functions. In France, however, strict control over the administrative territorial subdivisions is exercised by the national government. In other unitary states there exists only token territorial decentralization.
Confederation produces the weakest central government. Member states in a confederation retain their sovereignty, delegating to the central government only those powers that are essential for its maintenance. The individual states jealously guard their power to tax and to make their own laws. The central government serves as a coordinating instrument to protect the interests of all its members. It also represents the confederation in dealings with outside governments, but its actions are subject to the review and approval of the confederated states.
The weakness of the confederate form of government led the United States to abandon that system in 1789 after only eight years. Confederations, however, have also served other nations — Germany and Switzerland, for example — as a preliminary step toward a more unified government. No modern nation-state is organized along confederate lines, yet some international organizations, such as the British Commonwealth of Nations, the European Union (formerly the European Community), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have some aspects of a confederation.
Divisions of Government
Various political thinkers have distinguished types of government activity. Montesquieu was the first, however, to urge the creation of three separate institutions or divisions of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial — a distinction that became common in almost all modern constitutions. Some governmental structures, notably that of the United States, are based on the principle of separation of powers at nearly every level. Executive, legislative, and judicial powers are divided into three branches of government, creating a system of checks and balances among them and helping to protect citizens from arbitrary and capricious actions on the part of any of the three branches. Such protection is crucial in the area of civil rights — those constitutionally guaranteed rights that shield the citizen from tyrannical actions by government. Often, in times of grave national emergency, when the central government needs more power, the public is willing to grant it. The executive branch usually predominates at such time.
Proponents of the separation of powers bring an additional argument in its favor: they point out that the system diminishes the influence of special-interest groups over any one branch of government or over the government as a whole. It is difficult for even the strongest faction to dominate a government in which the executive is elected by the entire population, members of the legislature represent different geographical constituencies, and the judges are appointed by the executive with the approval of the legislature.
Not all states, of course, have such clear divisions of government, nor do divisions necessarily guarantee personal liberties. Parliamentary democratic systems, for example, tend to merge legislative and executive functions yet control the exercise of power by constitutional methods of sharing it. Authoritarian states may, however, be constitutionally bound to have separate organs of government yet actually concentrate power in the executive.
Functions of Government
Maintenance of Authority
One of the principal functions of government is to remain in power. Governments do not relinquish their authority unless compelled to do so. Many of the actions of politicians and civil servants can be explained by the need to maintain and enhance their power.
Every government strives to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It may identify itself with ancient traditions, with hope for the future, or with fear of a common enemy. Some governments employ repression, never relaxing their vigils against real or imagined opponents. Even democracies, when threatened, are likely to engage in a search for subversives and “enemies of the people.”
When a regime draws its main support from a privileged class or group that decreases in numbers and strength, when a government becomes ineffective in handling domestic affairs or countering external threats, or when a society’s consensus on the principles and goals of government evaporates, a government tends to lose authority. The French monarchy in the 18th century and the Russian monarchy in the 20th century were based on aristocracies that had lost much of their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Eventually these regimes were unable to enforce their laws, and revolutions swept them from power.
Governments tend, therefore, to foster widespread ideological commitment to the nation through patriotic ceremonies, propaganda, and civic education; they employ armed forces and intelligence-gathering organizations for national defense; they maintain police and prison systems to ensure domestic order; and they undertake the administration of supervisory and regulatory functions to carry out national goals by establishing various bureaucracies to handle each complex function.
All governments recognize the principle that the public must be protected and served. The citizen, in effect, surrenders a degree of individual sovereignty to the government in return for protection of life and property and the delivery of essential services. Governments supervise the resolution of conflicting interests, the workings of the political process, the enforcement of laws and rights, and the monitoring of national income and international trade; they regulate economic and social relationships among individuals and private organizations; and they carry out enterprises such as production of military goods, provision of postal services, and ownership of power utilities and public works. Among the most basic services provided by government are the printing and coining of money, the provision of roads, sewers, water, education, and social and welfare services.
With the growth of the welfare state, governments began to provide services such as social security and health insurance. But the scope of government regulation is now much broader. In the United States the government sets minimum wages, limits the rates charged by public utilities, buys farm commodities to keep prices up, forbids the sale of harmful foods and drugs, sets standards for gasoline consumption by automobiles, requires manufacturers to install antipollution devices, and monitors the safety of factories. Federal, state, and local governments in the United States also engage directly in economic activity. They impose taxes, produce and consume goods, sell electric power, lend money to farmers, and insure bank deposits.
In other countries governments intrude even further into the workings of the economy. In Western Europe governments own and operate telephone, radio, and television services, railroads, coal mines, and aircraft companies. In some countries, such as Sweden and Great Britain, the entire health system is also run by the state. In countries with Communist governments, such as the former USSR, North Korea, China, and Cuba, the state has attempted to control the entire economic life of the nation. All economic planning is centralized in the government and its bureaucracies. When the system fails to produce the goods and services expected by the people, the government is forced to increase the level of repression of its citizens in order to remain in power.
The end of the cold war and the loss of control by the superpowers over international events have led to a different type of stress on many governments. The threats to their sovereignty are no longer external. Many nations, especially those artificially carved out of old empires that expired during both World Wars, are finding that the arbitrary power that maintained the central governments is no longer sufficient for the task. The communication revolution, through radio and the satellite transmission of television, has truly created a “global village.” Citizens no longer live in isolation. They demand the rights and privileges enjoyed by others.
Another kind of demand governments must try to meet comes from ethnic and religious groups that in some cases seek autonomy from the government. Some of these conflicts result in attempts at genocide, and the rest of the world appears powerless to intervene. These problems are not limited to Third World countries. NATO has revised its original purpose of preventing an invasion of western Europe to a strategy of maintaining smaller mobile forces to prevent the internal breakup of nations. But these internal conflicts continue to have the potential to produce anarchy and chaos, threatening entire regions.
In modern times national governments have become increasingly involved with one another in supranational systems. The League of Nations, established in 1919, grew to include more than 90 members. It collapsed in World War II but was succeeded by the United Nations (UN). The UN, like the League, is a voluntary association generally without power to act unless the five permanent members of the Security Council agree. It has, however, served as a forum for international debate and a convenient meeting ground for negotiations. The UN has also committed military forces of member nations in an attempt to limit the scope of conflicts that cannot be solved by national governments. UN forces have suffered casualties in some of these conflicts. The United Nations is now an international government in both theory and reality, and the organization will continue to face many serious challenges in many parts of the world.
Associated with the UN are a number of specialized organizations that perform important governmental functions. They include the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Court of Justice (World Court), the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, and the International Telecommunication Union.
The specialized agencies have enabled national governments to cooperate in many practical matters such as setting standards, extending technical and financial assistance to developing countries, eliminating or controlling epidemic diseases, and establishing an international monetary system.
Regional associations of nations have usually existed in a loose confederation for national security purposes or for vaguely defined geographical and political purposes. The European Union of 15 member nations has taken the concept of regional association to a much higher level. It has moved to create a political union among sovereign states, and its Common Market constitutes one of the major economies of the world.
Hartmann, T. B. (2014). Government. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 1, 2014, (03/06/2019) from Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0123980-0