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 subdivisions 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 standpoints; 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 of 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 of 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, the 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 serve 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 government in the Western world. This influence was derived in part from the great Roman achievement in formulating clearly for the first time the principle that constitutional law, establishing the sovereignty of the state, is superior to ordinary law, such as that created by legislative enactments.
After the fall of Rome, the Roman concept of a universal dominion was kept alive during the Middle Ages through the formation of the Holy Roman Empire; and also, in part, by the establishment, through canon law and ecclesiastical courts with jurisdiction over secular affairs, of the ruling body of the Roman Catholic church. The effect of these influences was to retard the development of national territories and governments after tendencies in that direction had manifested themselves among the feudal principalities of Europe. On the other hand, the struggle of the feudal barons to limit the absolute power of their monarchs eventually produced many contributions to the theory and institutions of representative government. During the Middle Ages commercial city-states arose in Europe. These city-states eventually formed the Hanseatic League and the powerful Italian city-republics, or communes.
The final emergence of national governments is attributed to two principal causes. One comprises a number of underlying economic causes, including a great expansion in trade and the development of manufacturing. These conditions began to undermine the feudal system, which was based on isolated and self-sufficient economic units, and to make necessary the creation of large political units. The other cause was the Reformation, which succeeded in eliminating the restraining influence of the Catholic church on political development in a number of European countries.
The modern nation-state became a definite form of government in the 16th century. It was almost entirely dynastic and autocratic. The will of the reigning monarch, in theory and often in practice, was unlimited; the famous aphorism of King Louis XIV of France, “L'état, c'est moi” (“I am the state”), was not an idle boast, but an expression of existing reality. In time, however, the demand of the bourgeoisie for constitutional and representative government made itself felt, and the unlimited powers of monarchs began to be challenged. In England, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 restricted such powers and established the preeminence of Parliament. This tendency culminated in two events of historic importance, the American Revolution, beginning in 1775, and the French Revolution, beginning in 1789. Historians generally date the rise of modern democratic government from these events.
The history of government in the 19th century and in part of the 20th is notable for the broadening of the political base of government through extension of suffrage and other reforms. A tendency that became especially marked in the 20th century was the development and implementation of the concept that government, in addition to maintaining order and administering justice, must be an instrument for administering public and social services including, among many others, conservation of natural resources, scientific research, education, and social security. Between 1945 and 1951, the Labour Party government of Britain extended the responsibilities of government to include nationalization of a number of basic industries in a need for stringent economic planning. Other outstanding developments of the 20th century were the appearance of the corporative state and of totalitarian governments in a number of countries, and the first so-called proletarian dictatorship in history, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. From the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s, most eastern European countries adjacent to or near the USSR had governments similar in many respects to that of the USSR.