A government is a manner in which a nation rules. There are MANY ways to run a country. Conversely, the lack of government is known as “anarchy.” Some governments involve rule by a few, including aristocracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Others can be based on religion (theocracy), popular rule (democracy), or economic philosophy (colonialism or socialism). And, many countries have a combination, including democratic republics that are at the same time socialist governments.
Lots of Governments
The United Nations today recognizes over two hundred countries. They have a range of peoples, cultures, and governments. Our task today is to focus on types of governments.
Government, the persons and organizations that have the power (authority) to rule over a country or subdivision of one, comes in a range of styles. Perhaps because I have not had my breakfast yet, let us talk about thirteen of them, a baker’s dozen.
My task here is to summarize each type of government, including providing examples. My goal is not to rank them though some are in my view better than others.
And, to toss it in, anarchy is the absence of government. Anarchy particularly suggests a general disorder and lawlessness. There is also one understanding of “anarchy” which is a political philosophy that supports no organized government, but some sort of general agreement that is reached by different people and groups voluntarily doing so.
The word “aristocracy” comes from the Greek words for “government by the best,” including by such criteria as heredity, wealth, military or religious status, and education.
An aristocracy is rule by a small group of elite and privileged members of society such as the nobility. The U.S. Constitution prohibits titles of nobility. But, an aristocracy can exist whenever there is some special class of people deemed suitable for the government.
In the Middle Ages, the system of feudalism was a form of aristocracy, where power was held in the hands of the nobility, who passed their authority to their children.
An oligarchy is the “rule by the few,” often obtained by wealth or military power. The difference between aristocracy and oligarchy is largely that an aristocracy is believed to be more positively based. An example of an oligarchy is Ancient Sparta.
Over time, a single person gained control over a large amount of territory. This person, a monarch (often a king or queen), ruled over the land. This system of government is known as a monarchy. The kingdoms in your favorite Disney or Hallmark Channel movies are monarchies.
A monarch can have unlimited power. Monarchs also can be limited by law and agreed upon frameworks of government known as constitutions. The kings and queens of Great Britain, for instance, over time became limited monarchs, required to follow constitutional rules.
A constitutional monarchy is a government ruled by a monarch, who tends to rule for life and passes along power to their oldest child, or some other heredity-based system. But, a constitutional monarch has limited power, power set forth by constitutional principles.
Some “Ism” Governments
An “ism” is a type of doctrine, theory, system, or practice, including systems of government.
Communism is a political and economic philosophy that advocates (favors) the collective ownership of resources as well as the distribution of wealth according to each individual’s contribution. The Soviet Union (when it existed), China, Cuba, and North Korea are communist.
Socialism is based on the idea that common or public ownership of resources and means of production leads to a more equal society. Socialist countries do not have as complete control of resources as communist countries. Sweden has a form of socialist government today.
Fascism is a form of authoritarian government that promotes extreme nationalism and a rejection of individual rights in favor of an all-powerful state. “Fascism” is named after an ancient symbol of authority (a bundle of sticks or “fasces“). The most famous examples of fascism would be Mussolini-led Italy and Nazi Germany.
Colonialism is a form of government in which a country controls a region and exploits its resources without providing the people equal political control. We are particularly aware of this system of government since the United States began as colonies of Great Britain before declaring independence.
The period after World War II was a major time of worldwide decolonization.
What form of government is the United States?
The United States is both a democracy and a republic. This is sometimes a matter of confusion (I would argue a bit of trolling) so let’s clarify these two terms.
Democracy is literally “rule by the people.” An example of this system of government would be certain towns in New England where the people as a whole voted in town meetings.
But, every single person does not usually vote in a democracy. New England town meetings would involve a certain number of adult citizens showing up to vote.
Democracy usually entails citizens, the people recognized as full members of society. So, though Ancient Athens is labeled a “democracy,” only a small subset (not children, women, or slaves) had political power. Democracy that involves citizenship so small that it is in effect ruled by a minority is a myth. Such a “democracy” is really a form of aristocracy or oligarchy.
A republic involves the people voting for representatives to govern them. Thus, we vote for members of Congress, who govern in the name of the people and the fifty states. Since the people as a whole vote (democracy), the United States has a democratic republic.
God and States
Theocracy comes from Greek words meaning “rule by God.” A theocracy is a government that is led by a religious figure and/or a government guided by religious faith and doctrine.
Ancient Israel was a theocracy. Modern-day Iran is a theocracy. A theocracy might allow some religious freedom. But, if the government is led by religious leaders and principles, it is still a theocracy. A theocracy often significantly limits religious freedom outside of the official one.
A military dictatorship is when the military controls the country by authoritarian rule. Multiple Latin American countries in the 20th Century were governed by military dictatorships.
A military dictatorship can be a form of oligarchy or aristocracy, with rule by a few or rule by the elite based on military power and position. The military can have the true power in a country, installing figureheads for show purposes. The military still would be ruling in fact.
A totalitarian government is the sort of dystopian government found in many teenage novels or George Orwell’s 1984. It is a government that seeks total control, not just of political and economic matters, but control of the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the population.
READ MORE ABOUT THEOCRACIES HERE
A totalitarian government is a form of fascist government but the term underlines the level of complete control. A government can be communist, and not reach the level of complete control involved here. Modern-day North Korea would be an example of a totalitarian government.
These are some of the primary systems of government found throughout history, in the world today, and in our imagination. One basic thing to remember is they often overlap.
Communism, like capitalism (market-based), is both an ideology and an economic system. There are various ways communism can be applied. Communist tends to be atheistic, but a communist government in theory can be theocratic (early Christians followed a form of communism). Democratic countries can be socialist as well as constitutional monarchies. And so on.
The baker’s dozen of governments are in practice more of a medley.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How have the types of government evolved over time?
Why would a nation adopt of mix of government types?
Which types of governments contribute to more civil rights and why?
Where would you want to be the child of a leader and why?