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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,"[1] "the ruling power in a political society,"[2] and the apparatus through which a governing body functions and exercises authority.[3] "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."[4] "A compulsory territorial monopolist of protection and jurisdiction equipped with the power to tax without unanimous consent."[5] 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 or province of sufficient size and complexity will have different layers or levels of government: local, regional and national.

Types of government


The U.S. Capitol houses the main workings of American democracy.

  • Anarchy - Absence, or lack of government.[6][7]
  • Constitutional Monarchy - A government that has a king, but his/her power is strictly limited by the government. Example: United Kingdom.
  • 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).[8][9][10]
  • Despotism - Governing by a single individual, the despot, who wields all the power and authority of the state. Other persons are subsidiary to the despot.
  • Dictatorship - Rule by an individual who has full power over the country.[11] See also Autocracy and Stratocracy.
  • Monarchy - Rule by an individual who has inherited the role and expects to bequeath it to their heir.[12]
  • Oligarchy - Rule by a small group of people who share similar interests or family relations.[13]
  • Plutocracy - A government composed of the wealthy class.
  • Theocracy - Rule by a religious elite.[14]
  • Tyranny - Governing by a single ruler, the tyrant, holding vast, if not absolute power through a state.

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.[15][16]

Origin of government

For many thousands of years when people were hunter-gatherers and small scale farmers, 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,[17] and that allowed for ever increasing population densities.[18] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20][21] 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.[22][23] "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."[24]

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.[25] The philosopher Thomas Hobbes figured that people, as rational animals, saw submission to a government dominated by a sovereign as preferable to anarchy.[26][27]

People in a community create and submit to government for the purpose of establishing for themselves, safety and public order.[28][27][29][30]

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,[4] and to that end, they usually suppress the development of private armies within their states.

Security (Internal)

Further information: Law (government), Law enforcement, Laws, Gun control laws, Marihuana laws

One of the most important role of the government is to provide security, and to enforce Law. The instruments that are used for this purpose are Police, the management of Identity documents, etc.

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.[31] One of a great many examples would be Wang Mang's attempt to reform the currency in favor of the peasants and poor in ancient China.[32]

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.[33] 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

Main article: 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.[34] In modern, relatively high-income societies, a mixed approach is taken where the government shares a substantial responsibility of taking care of the elderly.[34]

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 behavior in a society, and it has an impact on reducing the cycle of poverty.[34] 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.[35]


Further information: Health care administration, healthcare costs, healthcare policy

Governments play a major role (with importance varying from a country to another) in contributing to the health of the cititzens. This role includes funding (directectly or indirectly via subsidies) and even manageing the healthcare system. It also intervene by elaborating Laws aiming at protecting the health of the citizens.

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.


Further information: Education, Educational programs

The government plays a central role in participating to the education of the citizens. In particular it finances (directly or via subsidizing) a huge portion of the educational system (Schools, Universities, continuous education).

Foreign policy

Main article: Foreign policy making

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.


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.[36][37] 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.[38]


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.

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,[39] 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.[40]

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 of the citizens of this government. Government exalts some of its citizens and oppresses others. At times, governments can be aligned with its citizens 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 societies have become more complex, governments have become likewise more complex, powerful and, in some cases, intrusive. The controversies over how large, how powerful and how intrusive governments should become will likely continue for the remainder of human history.

See also


  1. Wordnet Search 3.0: Government
  2. LoveToKnow: 1911 Encyclopedia: Government
  3. American 760
  4. 4.0 4.1 Adler 80-81
  5. Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (2003). The Myth of National Defense, 8.
  6. American 65
  7. Technically, anarchy is not a form of government
  8. American 483
  9. Fotopoulos, Takis, The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy. (Athens: Gordios, 2005). (English translation of the book with the same title published in Greek).
  10. Victorian Electronic Democracy : Glossary. URL accessed on 2007-12-14.
  11. American 503
  12. American 1134
  13. American 1225
  14. American 1793
  15. CIA World Factbook -- Iran. Central Intelligence Agency. URL accessed on 2007-12-04. (printable version)
  16. CIA - World Factbook -- Netherlands. Central Intelligence Agency. URL accessed on 2007-12-04.
  17. Christian 146-147
  18. 18.0 18.1 Christian 245
  19. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named christian 294
  20. Christian 253
  21. Most of this sentence is in the present tense because the process is still ongoing.
  22. Christian 271
  23. The concept of the city itself became a self-reinforcing cycle. "The creation of such large and dense communities required new forms of power," and since cities concentrate power, the new (sovereign) rulers had incentives to build and expand cities to further increase their power.(Christian 271,321)
  24. Christian 248
  25. Schulze 81
  26. Dietz 68
  27. 27.0 27.1 Social Contract Theory
  28. Dietz 65-66
  29. Hobbes idea of the necessity of the formation of government is known as the social contract theory.
  30. The field of study and thought about the necessity of governments and governments' relationships with people is known as political philosophy.
  31. Schulze 13,58
  32. General Zhaoyun par. 1
  33. Interestingly, during World War I, the "capitalist" countries of Europe implemented economic measures that would make a socialist proud.(Schulze 275)
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Nebel 165-166
  35. Bruce Bartlett. Social Security Then and Now. COMMENTARY. March 2005, Vol. 119, No. 3, pp. 52-56. In the online version on paragraph 13 it suggests that, During the Great Depression, Roosevelt wanted to suppress revolutionary tendencies by tying workers to the state—hence a state-run social security system. Also read the paragraphs above where it talks about populist demagogues and socialist revolutions in other countries. Tying workers to the state through social security was a politically strategic move designed to preserve the United States of America and its democracy.
  36. Dietz 151n70
  37. Dietz 138
  38. E.L. Skip Knox The Punic Wars. Department of History, Boise State University. URL accessed on 2007-12-14.
  39. Christian 358
  40. McKay 613


  • Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). The Common Sense of Politics, Fordham University Press, New York.
  • American Heritage dictionary of the English language, 4th edition, pp. 572, 770, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Christian, David (2004). Maps of Time, University of California Press.
  • Dietz, Mary G. (1990). Thomas Hobbes & Political Theory, University Press of Kansas.
  • McKay, John P.; Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler (1996). A History of World Societies, Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Miller, George A., Christiane Fellbaum, and Randee Tengi, and Pamela Wakefield, and Rajesh Poddar, and Helen Langone, and Benjamin Haskell WordNet Search 3.0. WordNet a lexical database for the English language. Princeton University/Cognitive Science Laboratory /221 Nassau St./ Princeton, NJ 08542. URL accessed on 2007-11-10.
  • Nebel, Bernard J.; Richard T. Wright (2007). Environmental Science (7th ed.), Prentice Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458.
  • Schulze, Hagen (1994). States, Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell Publishers Inc, 350 Main Street, Malden, Massachusetts 02148, USA.

Additional references

  • Higham, Charles F. W. (2004). Indus Valley Civilization. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc.. URL accessed on 2007-12-07.
  • Kenoyer, J. M. Ancient Cities of the Indus Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998
  • Possehl, Gregory L. Harappan Civilization: A Recent Perspective. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Indus Age: The Writing System. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996
  • “Revolution in the Urban Revolution: The Emergence of Indus Urbanisation,” Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1990): 261–282.
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