Government, political organization comprising the individuals and institutions authorized to formulate public policies and conduct affairs of state. Governments are empowered to establish and regulate the interrelationships of the people within their territorial confines, the relations of the people with the community as a whole, and the dealings of the community with other political entities. Government applies in this sense both to the governments of national states, such as the federal government of the U.S., and to the governments of ssubdivisions of national states, such as the state, county, and municipal governments of the U.S. and the governments of the provinces of Canada. Such organizations as universities, labor unions, and churches are also broadly governmental in many of their functions. The word government may refer to the people who form the supreme administrative body of a country, as in the expression “the government of Prime Minister Churchill.”
Governments are classified in a great many ways and from a wide variety of sstandpoints; many of the categories inevitably overlap. A familiar classification is that which distinguishes monarchic from republican governments. Scholars in modern times, especially in the 20th century, have stressed the characteristics that distinguish democratic governments from dictatorships. In one classification oof governments, federal states are distinguished from unitary states. Federal states, such as the U.S. and Switzerland, comprise unions of states in which the authority of the central or national government is constitutionally limited by the legally established powers of the constituent subdivisions. In unitary states, such as the United Kingdom and Belgium, the constituent subdivisions of the state are subordinate to the authority of the national government. The degree of subordination varies from country to country. It may also vary within a country from time to time and according to circumstance; for example, the central authority of the national government in Italy was greatly increased from 1922 to 1945, during the period of the Fascist dictatorship. In one classification oof democratic nations, parliamentary or cabinet governments are distinguished from presidential ones. In parliamentary governments, of which the United Kingdom, India, and Canada are examples, the executive branch is subordinate to the legislature. In presidential governments, such as in the U.S., the executive is independent of the legislature, although many of the executive’s actions are subject to legislative review. Still other classifications hinge on varying governmental forms and powers among the nations of the world.
In the theory of political science, tthe function of government is to secure the common welfare of the members of the social aggregate over which it exercises control. In different historical epochs, governments have endeavored to achieve the common welfare by various means. Among primitive peoples, systems of social control were rudimentary; they arose directly from ideas of right and wrong common to the members of a social group and were enforced on individuals primarily through group pressure. Among more civilized peoples, governments assumed institutional forms; they rested on defined legal bases, imposing penalties on violators of the law and using force to establish themselves and discharge their functions.
The despotic empires of Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Persia, and Macedonia were followed by the rise of city-states, the first self-governing communities, in which the rule of law predominated and state officials were responsible to the citizens who chose them. The city-states of Greece, such as Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, and of that part of Asia Minor dominated or influenced by the Greeks, provided the material for the speculative political theories of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s system of classifying states, which influenced subsequent political thought for centuries, was based on a simple criterion: good governments are those that best sserve the general welfare; bad governments are those that subordinate the general good to the good of the individuals in power. Aristotle distinguished three categories of government: monarchy, government by a single individual; aristocracy, government by a select few; and democracy, government by many. The later Greek philosophers, influenced by Aristotle, distinguished three degenerate forms of the classes of government defined by him. These were, respectively, tyranny, rule by an individual in his or her own interest; oligarchy, rule by a few people in their own interest; and ochlocracy, mob rule. Still other categories of lasting historical significance are theocracy, rule by religious leaders; and bureaucracy, the excessive domination of government by administrative officials.
Ancient Rome, which evolved from a city-republic to the seat of a world empire, also greatly influenced the development of ...