Forms of Government
From The New Book of Knowledge
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Most of the world's people belong to political groups called nations or countries. Within the borders of each nation, the people are organized to keep order among themselves, provide certain common services (such as education, communications, and transportation), and protect themselves from attack by hostile countries.
Since the earliest years of human history, groups of people living together have needed rules to regulate their daily lives. Small, pre-industrial societies chose chiefs or other leaders to make and enforce the rules by which they lived. The people themselves took no part in the rulemaking. They left everything to their leaders. However, as cultures developed, people became interested in helping to make the rules or laws that governed them, because they had so much at stake. Little by little they developed the idea of choosing leaders who would draw up laws that they wanted and thought suitable. The people also began to put into operation their own systems for enforcing these laws. They had learned how to create a government.
THE POWER OF GOVERNMENT
The governments that people establish for themselves can influence, and even change, their lives in many ways.
Governments decide such matters as what kinds of property should be publicly owned (that is, owned by the state in the name of the people). They can also decide how much property can be privately owned and how much a person must pay in taxes. Governments can set educational requirements, place limits on immigration, and conscript (draft) citizens into military service. Public libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, hospitals, and parks are at least partly dependent on government.
THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE
Because government leaders have such great power, nothing is more important to citizens than the choice of able leaders. Human happiness depends to a considerable degree on the kind of laws that governments enact.
In earlier societies political power was often accompanied by superior force. Governments today are sometimes ruled by leaders who have taken power by force. But such leaders are considered to govern illegally. Legal governments are those to which the consent of the governed has been freely given, usually through elections. Elected leaders are expected to take into account the economic and social needs of the people as well as their customs and traditions.
When a government reflects these needs and traditions, the people tend to have faith in it and are willing to abide by its laws. If not, they may vote their leaders out of office and elect new ones. In most modern nations there are also agreements or understandings between the government and the governed. One basic form of agreement is a constitution. It defines (and limits) what a government can do and how it can do it. Constitutions may be written or unwritten. Unwritten constitutions are usually based on a large body of established law and custom.
TYPES OF GOVERNMENT
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) said that "The true forms of government...are those in which the one, or the few, or the many govern, with a view to the common interest[horizontal_ellipsis]"
A government run by one person Aristotle called a monarchy. Government by the few he called an aristocracy. Government by the many was a polity. This is what is now called a constitutional democracy.
Although Aristotle considered these the true forms of government, he believed that each could be bad as well as good.
For example, a monarchy ruled only for the purpose of increasing the monarch's wealth and power became a tyranny and the ruler a tyrant. When the ruling few in an aristocracy ruled only for their own benefit, Aristotle referred to such a government as an oligarchy. Oligarchic governments were more common in his time than today. But although such governments did not necessarily begin as corrupt, Aristotle saw them as inevitably becoming so.
To describe rule by the many, Aristotle drew on the Greek word demos, meaning "common people." He called government by the common people a democracy. Aristotle did not regard democracy favorably. He believed that government by the masses could lead to disorder or lawlessness.
Like many other terms used in government, the word autocracy is derived from Greek roots, in this case those for "self" and "rule." An autocrat was a ruler with unlimited authority. Absolute monarchy, a related term, refers to a monarch who ruled without checks on his or her power. The two terms were combined in the former emperors of Russia. They used "autocrat" as part of their title. Absolute monarchies exist today only in some of the states of the Arabian Peninsula. Another related term for autocracy, more commonly used in the past, is despotism, or rule by a despot.
Present-day democratic government differs significantly from the democracy practiced in ancient Greece, particularly in the city-state of Athens, where democracy reached its height. All male Athenian citizens were expected to participate directly in their government. They helped make laws and choose officials.
The modern democratic state is usually a republic. In a republic, the people do not take a direct role in legislating or governing but elect representatives to express their views and wants. A democratic government exists when these representatives are freely chosen by the people. Their demands are then recognized by the elected government.
In addition to free elections, true democratic governments also have other standards by which they can be measured. One is freedom of speech, under which people may criticize their governments without fear of persecution. Another is the peaceful and orderly transfer of political power when new leaders are elected to office.
A constitutional monarchy is a democratic government in which the monarch is retained as the ceremonial head of state. But he or she has little or no political power. Constitutional monarchies evolved from absolute monarchies. Their powers were gradually reduced, and their functions are now limited by a constitution. Probably the best-known constitutional monarchy is that of the United Kingdom, which has an unwritten constitution.
As a form of government, totalitarianism is of fairly recent origin. The term came into use in the 1920's and 1930's to describe the fascist regimes of Italy and Nazi Germany. After World War II (1939-45) the name was increasingly used to describe the Communist governments of the Soviet Union and the newly created states of Eastern Europe.
A totalitarian government, as its name implies, is characterized by its total control over all aspects of its citizens' political and economic activities. It is often used interchangeably with the term dictatorship to indicate a non-democratic form of government. But totalitarianism is even more rigorous in its controls. It is also marked by a distinct ideology, or set of beliefs, as in fascism, Nazism, or Communism. The term authoritarian government is sometimes used for a similar form of government but one that does not exert such absolute control over its peoples' lives.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991 brought about the collapse of most Eastern European Communist governments.
Democratic or Not?
It is not always easy to tell if a country's government is democratic or not by its outward appearances. Many non-democratic governments can appear on the surface to be democratic. The former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, for example, called themselves people's republics or people's democracies. They had written constitutions, had legislatures to pass laws, and held elections. But real political power was concentrated in the hands of the top leaders of the Communist Party. Their policies were then automatically approved by the "official" organs of the government.
One way to determine if a government is representative of its people is by its election procedures. In a democratic state, elections are held at regularly scheduled intervals. Voters choose from a number of candidates and vote is by secret ballot. The secret ballot is essential so that voters will not be unduly influenced or pressured or fear retribution for the choices they make.
By contrast, there is the directed election. This is used by political leaders who, although they may have come to power legally, do not wish to be unseated. Essentially, in such an election the government in power controls the election campaign so that it cannot be defeated. In another kind of directed election, only one candidate is offered for each political office, giving voters no choice.
The structure of a country's system of political parties is a strong indication of its status. Democratic nations have at least two major political parties. Some have numerous parties that represent a wide range of interests. In most non-democratic countries there is only one legal party--that of the government in power. Even if other political parties are permitted, they merely go along with the policies of the dominant party.
Modern democratic governments can be classified into two broad categories. One is parliamentary government. This is also known as cabinet government. Its model was the British parliamentary system.
In parliamentary government there is a concentration of responsibility. The government is headed by a prime minister (or premier), who is usually the leader of the political party that wins a majority of seats in election to the parliament. Where multiple political parties exist, a majority may not be achieved. In such cases, the largest party usually forms a coalition government by joining forces with one or more smaller parties. The prime minister and cabinet form the government but are responsible to the parliament, of which they are members. If defeated on an important measure, the government must call new elections. In any event, elections must be held at scheduled periods.
The presidential form of government is typified by that of the United States. It is based on the separation of powers. Political power is distributed among three branches of government--the executive (the president), legislative (the Congress), and judicial (the Supreme Court and other courts). This division of authority provides checks and balances. It serves to limit the power of government, which is defined by a written constitution.
In the past, the common people were afraid even to dream of a better way of life. If their ruler was an absolute monarch, they had no choice but to bow to that ruler's command. But in our own time, even the most autocratic governments have been forced to give some attention to the people's consent.
The Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations (UN), stresses the duty of governments to treat their people justly. It also directs people to develop a voice in their governments. The UN also holds that the sooner all nations and their people follow such action, the closer they will come to realizing the goal of an international community dedicated to enduring peace, social growth, and economic plenty.