Checked content


Related subjects: Systems of government

Did you know...

This content from Wikipedia has been selected by SOS Children for suitability in schools around the world. Click here to find out about child sponsorship.

Detail from Elihu Vedder, Government (1896). Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

A government is "the organization, that is the governing authority of a political unit," "the ruling power in a political society," and the apparatus through which a governing body functions and exercises authority. "Government, with the authority to make laws, to adjudicate disputes, and to issue administrative decisions, and with a monopoly of authorized force where it fails to persuade, is an indispensable means, proximately, to the peace of communal life." Statist theorists maintain that the necessity of government derives from the fact that the people need to live in communities, yet personal autonomy must be constrained in these communities.

A state of sufficient size and complexity will have different layers or levels of government: local, regional and national.

Types of government

  • Monarchy - Rule by an individual who has inherited the role and expects to bequeath it to their heir.
  • Despotism - Rule by a single leader, all his or her subjects are considered his or her slaves.
  • Dictatorship - Rule by an individual who has full power over the country. See also Autocracy and Stratocracy.
  • Oligarchy - Rule by a small group of people who share similar interests or family relations.
  • Plutocracy - A government composed of the wealthy class.
  • Democracy - Rule by a government where the people as a whole hold the power. It may be exercised by them ( direct democracy), or through representatives chosen by them ( representative democracy).
  • Theocracy - Rule by a religious elite.
  • Anarchy - Absence, or lack of government.

Some countries have hybrid forms of Government such as modern Iran with its combination of democratic and theocratic institutions, and constitutional monarchies such as The Netherlands combine elements of monarchy and democracy.

Origin of government

For many thousands of years, humans lived in small, "relatively non-hierarchical" and mostly self-sufficient communities. However, the human ability to precisely communicate abstract, learned information allowed humans to become ever more effective at agriculture, and that allowed for ever increasing population densities. David Christian explains how this resulted in states with laws and governments:

As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between different groups increased and the social pressure rose until, in a striking parallel with star formation, new structures suddenly appeared, together with a new level of complexity. Like stars, cities and states reorganize and energize the smaller objects within their gravitational field.
—David Christian, p. 245, Maps of Time

The exact moment and place that the phenomenon of human government developed is lost in time; however, history does record the formations of very early governments. About 5,000 years ago, the first small city-states appeared. By the third to second millenniums BC, some of these had developed into larger governed areas: the Indus Valley Civilization, Sumer, Ancient Egypt and the Yellow River Civilization.

States formed as the results of a positive feedback loop where population growth results in increased information exchange which results in innovation which results in increased resources which results in further population growth. The role of cities in the feedback loop is important. Cities became the primary conduits for the dramatic increases in information exchange that allowed for large and densely packed populations to form, and because cities concentrated knowledge, they also ended up concentrating power. "Increasing population density in farming regions provided the demographic and physical raw materials used to construct the first cities and states, and increasing congestion provided much of the motivation for creating states."

Fundamental purpose of government

The fundamental purpose of government is the maintenance of basic security and public order — without which individuals cannot attempt to find happiness. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes figured that people, as rational animals, saw submission to a government dominated by a sovereign as preferable to anarchy.

People in a community create and submit to government for the purpose of establishing for themselves, safety and public order.

Early governments

These are examples of some of the earliest known governments:

  • Ancient Egypt—3000 BC
  • Indus Valley Civilization—3000 BC
  • Sumer—5200 BC
  • Yellow River Civilization (China)—2000 BC

Expanded roles for government

Military defense

The fundamental purpose of government is to protect one from his or her neighbors; however, a sovereign of one country is not necessarily sovereign over the people of another country. The need for people to defend themselves against potentially thousands of non-neighbors necessitates a national defense mechanism—a military.

Militaries are created to deal with the highly complex task of confronting large numbers of enemies. A farmer can defend himself from a single enemy person—or even five enemies, but he can't defend himself from twenty thousand—even with the help of his strongest and bravest family members. A far larger group would be needed, and despite the fact that most of the members of the group would not be related by family ties, they would have to learn to fight for one another as if they were all in the same family. An organization that trains people to do this is an army.

Wars and armies predated governments, but once governments came onto the scene, they proceeded to dominate the formation and use of armies. Governments seek to maintain monopolies on the use of force, and to that end, they usually suppress the development of private armies within their states.

Economic security

Increasing complexities in society resulted in the formations of governments, but the increases in complexity didn't stop. As the complexity and interdependency's of human communities moved forward, economies began to dominate the human experience enough for an individual's survival potential to be affected substantially by the region's economy. Governments were originally created for the purpose of increasing people's survival potentials, and in that same purpose, governments became involved in manipulating and managing regional economies. One of a great many examples would be Wang Mang's attempt to reform the currency in favour of the peasants and poor in ancient China.

At a bare minimum, government ensures that money's value will not be undermined by prohibiting counterfeiting, but in almost all societies—including capitalist ones—governments attempt to regulate many more aspects of their economies. However, very often, government involvement in a national economy has more than just a purpose of stabilizing it for the benefit of the people. Often, the members of government shape the government's economic policies for their own benefits. This will be discussed shortly.

Social security

Social security is related to economic security. Throughout most of human history, parents prepared for their old age by producing enough children to ensure that some of them would survive long enough to take care of the parents in their old age. In modern, relatively high-income societies, a mixed approach is taken where the government shares a substantial responsibility of taking care of the elderly.

This is not the case everywhere since there are still many countries where social security through having many children is the norm. Although social security is a relatively recent phenomenon, prevalent mostly in developed countries, it deserves mention because the existence of social security substantially changes reproductive behaviour in a society, and it has an impact on reducing the cycle of poverty. By reducing the cycle of poverty, government creates a self-reinforcing cycle where people see the government as friend both because of the financial support they receive late in their lives, but also because of the overall reduction in national poverty due to the government's social security policies--which then adds to public support for social security.

Environmental security

Governments play a crucial role in managing environmental public goods such as the atmosphere, forests and water bodies. Governments are valuable institutions for resolving problems involving these public goods at both the local and global scales (e.g., climate change, deforestation, overfishing). Although in recent decades the economic market has been championed by certain quarters as a suitable mechanism for managing environmental entities, markets have serious failures and governmental intervention and regulation and the rule of law is still required for the proper, just and sustainable management of the environment.

Positive Aspects of Government

Governments vary greatly, and the situation of citizens within their governments can vary greatly from person to person. For many people, government is seen as a positive force.

Upper economic class support

Governments often seek to manipulate their nations' economies — ostensibly for the nations' benefits. However, another aspect of this kind of intervention is the fact that the members of government often take opportunities to shape economic policies for their own benefits. For example, capitalists in a government might adjust policy to favour capitalism, so capitalists would see that government as a friend. In a feudal society, feudal lords would maintain laws that reinforce their powers over their lands and the people working on them, so those lords would see their government as a friend. Naturally, the exploited persons in these situations may see government very differently.

Support for democracy

Government, especially in democratic and republican forms, can be seen as the entity for a sovereign people to establish the type of society, laws and national objectives that are desired collectively. A government so created and maintained will tend to be quite friendly toward those who created and maintain it.


Government can benefit or suffer from religion, as religion can benefit or suffer from government. While governments can threaten people with physical harm for observed violations of the law, religion often provides a psychological disincentive for socially destructive or anti-government actions. Religion can also give people a sense of peace and resolve even when they are in trying circumstances, and when an individual's religious beliefs are aligned with the government's, that person will tend to see government as a friend—especially during religious controversies.

Negative Aspects of Government

Since the positions of individuals with respect to their governments can vary, there are people who see a government or governments as negative.


In the most basic sense, a people of one nation will see the government of another nation as the enemy when the two nations are at war. For example, the people of Carthage saw the Roman government as the enemy during the Punic wars.


In early human history, the outcome of war for the defeated was often enslavement. The enslaved people would not find it easy to see the conquering government as a friend.

Religious opposition

There is a flip side to the phenomenon of people's ability to view a government as a friend because they share the government's religious views. People with opposing religious views will have a greater tendency to view that government as their enemy. A good example would be the condition of Catholicism in England before the Catholic Emancipation. Protestants—who were politically dominant in England—used political, economic and social means to reduce the size and strength of Catholicism in England over the 16th to 18th centuries, and as a result, Catholics in England felt that their religion was being oppressed.

Class oppression

Whereas capitalists in a capitalist country may tend to see that nation's government as their friend, a class-aware group of industrial workers—a proletariat—may see things very differently. If the proletariat wishes to take control of the nation's productive resources, and they are blocked in their endeavors by continuing adjustments in the law made by capitalists in the government, then the proletariat will come to see the government as their enemy—especially if the conflicts become violent.

The same situation can occur among peasants. The peasants in a country, e.g. Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, may revolt against their landlords, only to find that their revolution is put down by government troops.

Critical views and alternatives

The relative merits of various forms of government have long been debated by philosophers, politicians and others. However, in recent times, the traditional conceptions of government and the role of government have also attracted increasing criticism from a range of sources. Some argue that the traditional conception of government, which is heavily influenced by the zero-sum perceptions of state actors and focuses on obtaining security and prosperity at a national level through primarily unilateral action, is no longer appropriate or effective in a modern world that is increasingly connected and interdependent. One such school of thought is human security, which advocates for a more people-based (as opposed to state-based) conception of security, focusing on protection and empowerment of individuals. Human security calls upon governments to recognise that insecurity and instability in one region affects all and to look beyond national borders in defining their interests and formulating policies for security and development. Human security also demands that governments engage in a far greater level of cooperation and coordination with not only domestic organisations, but also a range of international actors such as foreign governments, intergovernmental organisations and non-government organisations.

Whilst human security attempts to provide a more holistic and comprehensive approach to world problems, its implementation still relies to a large extent on the will and ability of governments to adopt the agenda and appropriate policies. In this sense, human security provides a critique of traditional conceptions of the role of government, but also attempts to work within the current system of state-based international relations. Of course, the unique characteristics of different countries and resources available are some constraints for governments in utilising a human security framework.


Government is sometimes an enemy and sometimes a friend. Government exalts some of us and oppresses others of us. At times, governments are aligned with our religious, economic and social views, and at other times—misaligned.

The role of government in the lives of people has expanded significantly during human history. Government's role has gone from providing basic security to concern in religious affairs to control of national economies and eventually to providing lifelong social security. As our societies have become more complex, governments have become more complex, powerful and intrusive. The controversies over how big, how powerful and how intrusive governments should become will continue for the remainder of human history.

Retrieved from ""