Social Science

Release date:
Jan 06, 2009

Government is as old as human beings themselves. All human societies are governed by rulers, no matter what their titles and characteristics may be. On the theoretical level, government is intrinsic to human societies. Nevertheless, at a more tangible level, nothing about government is static. Structures and functions of governing are constantly in change.

The word government has a Greek origin, kyvernites, which means "governor," or "rudder." Government is a body or organization that has the power to make and enforce laws and regulations for a certain territory. Government refers to the act of governing, meaning exercising authority over a community or a country. It is a system by which a political unit is governed. The two central features of government are the ability to make collective, binding decisions and the capacity to enforce them. Thus, the core functions of modern government are to make law (legislation), to implement law (execution), and to interpret law (adjudication). On the national level, the basic duty of any government is to ensure a country’s survival. Survival involves two basic tasks: defending independence against external threats, and maintaining internal security and preventing civil war or secession. In parliamentary systems, the political executive alone is referred to as "the government."

Each efficient government should have an authority, or a "legitimate power." Power is the ability to influence the behavior of others, whereas authority is the right to exercise that power and to get the people’s obedience by using various means, including direct physical coercion, threats, exile, banishment, and so on. Such an authority should be legitimate, that is, as Max Weber noted, the use of force by a government should be recognized as legitimate and justified by both the powerful and the powerless. Legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, and without a minimal amount of legitimacy, a government will deadlock or collapse.


Government differs from other social or private organizations in many ways, as noted by Austin Ranney (1996). It has legitimate monopoly of vast force (the army, the police, etc.), and can use coercion to enforce its rules and to punish rule breakers. Furthermore, government has inclusive and authoritative powers; that is, whereas rules made by nongovernmental organizations apply only to the members of those organizations and often conflict with those set by other organizations, governmental rules apply to all members of the country and usually are considered to be binding upon all members of a society. In any conflict between the decisions of government and the decisions of nongovernmental organizations, government decisions should prevail. Additionally, while membership in most organizations other than government is voluntary, citizenship is largely involuntary; most people become subject to governmental rules and decisions without any intentional choice.


There are several ways to classify governments. One traditional classification is based on who holds political power: one man or woman (autocratic government), a few (oligarchic government), or a majority (democratic government).

An autocratic government is a government in which one individual holds all power, as is the case in absolute monarchies and dictatorships. One feature of most hereditary monarchies is that the monarch usually rules as head of state for life. In absolute monarchies, monarchs hold substantial power over every aspect of the country. Contemporary examples of such a form of government include Brunei, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia. In other hereditary monarchies, real authority is held by military rulers, as was the case in Japan during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Under the fascists Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) in Italy and Francisco Franco (1892-1975) in Spain, the two countries were officially monarchies. Some current monarchies are established by tradition, thus the monarch has little real authority. Examples of such a form of government include democratic constitutional monarchies in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Spain.

Dictatorships are usually regarded as synonymous with other forms of autocratic governments, such as totalitarianism and authoritarianism, though each of these forms has a different meaning. Dictatorship refers to absolute, repressive rule by one leader who is unrestricted by any law or constitution. Many dictators tend to suppress any opinion that disagrees with their own, and often use military and security forces, propaganda, and arbitrary detention to enforce their will. Such dictatorships survive because of the fear of the dictator. Some dictators create single-party regimes, without democratic elections or with rigged ones, in an attempt to acquire popular legitimacy.

Totalitarian government is a term employed by political scientists to describe modern regimes in which a regime regulates nearly all aspects of public and private behavior. Totalitarian rulers mobilize entire populations in support of the state and a political ideology. Such rulers do not tolerate political activities by individuals or groups such as labor unions and political parties. They maintain themselves in power by means of widespread use of terror tactics, secret police, a one-party system, propaganda, and restriction of freedoms and free discussion. Examples of such regimes include the Soviet Union and the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s.

Authoritarianism is a form of government in which rulers are not appointed via free and fair elections. Authoritarian leaders tend to enforce strong and oppressive acts against those in their domain of influence. Examples of such regimes include the People’s Republic of China and Cuba.

In contrast, an oligarchic government is a government where political power is held by a small group of individuals such as aristocrats (the upper class) or plutocrats (the wealthy). Another example of an oligarchic rule, one based on race, was in South Africa under the apartheid system, where the white minority held power. Some theorists such as Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels argue that in a capitalist society, political and economic power is held by a few members of the capitalist class that seek to maintain the capitalist system at the expense of other classes. In his book Political Parties (1968), Michels mentions the "iron law of oligarchy," arguing that all forms of organizations, including the political system, will eventually develop into an oligarchy.

A democratic government is one in which the majority of the people hold political power. Democracy could be direct (all citizens exercise power, as was the case with Athenian democracy) or indirect (where power is exercised by elected representatives, as is the case with contemporary representative democracies in the West). The core characteristic of a democratic government, in the contemporary usage, is "the rule of law." This means that a democratic system is a constitutional government in which the law is supreme, and all citizens and classes are equal before the law. According to the nineteenth-century British jurist Albert Venn Dicey, the objective of this principle, the rule of law, was to substitute "a government of laws" for a "government of men." The rule of law is not a new value: The Romans provided the foundations of the rule of law and limited government in the West, and in fact the rule of law in Arabic-Islamic civilization antedated the Western principle. There is more than a century between the emergence of this principle in the Islamic state in the seventh and eighth centuries and its recent manifestation in the thought of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century liberal thinkers and, later, in the democratic systems in western Europe and North America.

A democratic government is also a government in which all citizens, rather than one autocratic leader or a few people, have the right and opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. In a democratic system, the people are the ultimate source of authority, and the authority of the majority is limited by law (a written or unwritten constitution) as well as institutional means (such as separated and shared powers, checks and balances, and leadership succession through frequent and fairly conducted elections) so that the rights of individuals and minorities are protected. This form of government exists in western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other regions and countries.


The constitutions of modern democratic governments are the main mechanisms by which the principles of constitutional democracy can be enacted into specific institutions and procedures. On the practical level, modern democratic governments can be classified according to the basis of the institutional organization of the political executive body and the relationship between executive and legislative bodies into parliamentary, presidential, and semipres-idential systems.

The executive power is composed of two organs in parliamentary governments. First is the head of the state, who is often a monarch or a president. Second, the government, which includes the head of government (called the prime minister, or chancellor) and the council of ministers, or the cabinet. The head of state is an inherited or elected figurehead with minor and ceremonial duties. He or she may have reserve authority (either by convention or by constitutional rule) that is usable in a crisis. Such authority, however, is usually exercised upon the advice and endorsement of the prime minister. The prime minister and the ministers of the cabinet are usually members of the parliament. The leader of the leading party (or group of parties) in the parliament is often appointed to be the prime minister. The government depends on the support of the parliament. Either the entire cabinet or single members can be removed by the parliament through a vote of no confidence. In turn, the executive body can dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. Thus, there is no clear-cut separation between the executive and legislative powers. The origins of this system go back to the British political system. The system also exists in many other democratic countries such as Spain, Japan, Sweden, Canada, and Australia.

In a presidential government, the executive organ, the president, is elected independent of the legislative institution. The president is both head of state and head of government, and there is sharp separation between the executive president and the legislature. Thus, the president is not a member, nor can he or she propose bills. Most importantly, the president cannot be removed by a vote of no confidence or any other political procedures. The president is elected for office for a fixed term and heads most of the agencies charged with executive functions such as enforcing and administering acts of the legislature. The president appoints a group of assistants (known as a cabinet) as heads of the executive departments and supervisors of the administrative agencies. This system of governing originated in the United States. Other countries with presidential systems include Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, and most countries in South America.

A semipresidential government is a system that has a cabinet and a president who both have substantial executive duties. This system differs from the parliamentary government because it has an elected president who is assigned substantial duties. Moreover, a semipresidential government differs from the presidential one in that it has a prime minister and a cabinet who are dependent on the support of the legislature. As in the parliamentary government, the cabinet, or a single minister, can be removed by a vote of no confidence in the parliament, and the president can dissolve the legislative assembly. France, Finland, Portugal, Romania, Taiwan, and Ukraine have semipresi-dential systems.


Modern states may be also classified according to the distribution of power at different levels of government into two main systems: unitary and federal. A unitary state is a state where the ultimate authority lies exclusively with a central government that controls central and local affairs. In such a system, local and regional authorities may make and implement policies, but they must have the permission of the central government. This form of government has emerged in former monarchies and empires such as France, Britain, and Japan. It also exists in countries with no ethnic divisions, such as the Scandinavian states, Egypt, and Turkey. The other form is a federal state, where political power is constitutionally shared between a federal government and local governments of constituent states or provinces. The function of the federal government is to handle foreign affairs, defense relations, and some internal functions such as monetary affairs. The local governments of the provinces or states usually handle education and law enforcement. The existence and functions of the provinces or states may be changed only by amending the constitution, a process that protects them from the federal power.