What Is The Definition Of A Government?

Government building
Government building

A government is a system of organization that has control over a country, state, municipality, city, or other political entity. When we say a political party or ruler is in control of the government of a country, we simply mean, that that political party or person is in control of the institutions of power. 

Categorizing Governments

Political scientists generally look for two criteria while studying governments. The first aspect is the type of governance, which is to say who or which entity rules and how citizens participate in the government. The major types are:

  • Autocracy, where power is vested into one person
  • Democracy, where citizens decide who is in power 
  • Oligarchy, where the government is controlled by a select elite 

Each type can have further sub-types. For example, a democratic government could be a presidential or parliamentary system.

The other criteria used to define government is by its system. A system of governance refers to how the power is distributed within a geographical territory. Power is generally distributed in one of three major ways. These are:

  • The Unitary system, where the central government holds supreme power 
  • The Federal system, where the government shares power within two or more entities 
  • The Confederation system, which is a union of governments under one system 

Sub-types of Government 

Autocracy can be sub-divided into several categories including dictatorship, absolute monarchy, and constitutional monarchy. A dictatorship refers to one individual holding power, generally through force, for example, Adolf Hitler (Germany) and Fidel Castro (Cuba). An absolute monarchy is where the highest power is vested in the hands of a monarch who rules the state, usually ascends into power by inheritance and holds this position for life. The monarch in many cases has supreme authority and can make decisions without approval or counsel of anyone. On the other hand, the powers of a constitutional monarch are restricted by a constitution, parliament, or even by custom. Generally, such monarchs have ceremonial roles rather than enforceable. In modern times, many countries, such as Belgium, Great Britain, and Denmark, have moved away from absolute monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy.

Democracy is a system of government in which representatives are elected by the people to make decisions on their behalf. It has two main sub-types: presidential and parliamentary systems. For example, the United States of America could be said to be a presidential system, and the United Kingdom, a parliamentary system. Democracy is usually practiced in the form of a republic, in which people’s elected deputies (proxies or representatives), rather than the people themselves, form, shape and implement the government and its functions. Less commonly seen are pure or direct democracies which involve deciding matters by way of popular vote or referendum, without the use of representatives. Examples can be found in certain ancient Roman city-states that established a form of direct democracy, but nowadays, practices such as referendums are more widely used. Finally, Switzerland has established a long-standing voting system where, in many cases, citizens are thought to have a more powerful vote than democracy in the world.

Oligarchy is also known as a government by the few. The term is derived from the Greek words for "few ruling in command". In this form of government, power effectively resides with a small group of individuals whose authority is generally based in wealth, family or military ties, or religious hegemony.

Distribution of Power

A unitary government refers to a system where the governing power resides with the central government. In this system, the central government does not share or devolve power to any other entity (such as a province or state). However, the central government can delegate authority to sub-national units, and sends the policy decisions down for implementation. Examples of this in contemporary times include Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cuba, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Federal government is a form of government in which power is divided between a central (federal) authority and a number of constituent regions (such as states or provinces) so that each constituent retains some control of its own region. This system is characterized by a strong central body and relatively weaker regional bodies. Present-day examples include the United States, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, and Venezuela.

A confederation system of government is formed by an agreement among states, provinces, or territories. The constituting entities retain substantial independence and give only a few powers to the central body. A historical example of a confederation included the Confederate States of America (1861-1865) in what is now the Southern United States, and the United Arab States (1958-1961) of Egypt, Syria, and parts of present-day Yemen.

What About Anarchy?

A system of government is often thought of in relation to its opposite, anarchy. In the state anarchy, there is no hierarchy, and all domestic matters and social affairs are carried out voluntarily by the people. However, whether anarchy remians theoretical and whether this system of organisation would work on a large-scale remains to be seen.

Why Governments Are Important

Simply stated, without any process of governing society, it would be virtually impossible for a country to trade, enact policies that help its citizens in cluding healthcare, social welfare, and education. The absence government or regulation of society, society is thought to breakdown. Therefore, a government is needed to ensure justice, protect human rights, and ensure and foster human development.


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