Forms of Government

Forms of Government



Governments are organized in a variety of forms. This entry covers the different ways
of classifying these forms: according to the geographic distribution of power, the relationship between legislative and executive branches, and the number of persons who can participate in the governing process.

In relation to classifying Government:

  • No two governments are exactly alike.
  • Governments are classified here into three categories in order to analyze them: geographic distribution; relationship between legislative and executive; and number who can participate.

The Geographic Distribution of Power may be:

  • Unitary Government — Power is held in a single, central agency. A centralized government. Local government is created by central government for convenience and is answerable to central government. Most governments are unitary. Great Britain is an example of unitary but democratic. Do not confuse with dictatorship. The various states in United States, for example, have unitary form of government.
  • Federal Government — Powers are divided between a central government and several local
    governments. Both act on their own sets of laws, officials, and agencies. In Brazil or the United States., national government has power and so do states.
  • Confederation — An alliance of independent states. A confederate government possesses little authority to act on its own. The central government has limited power and can only handle matters that the member states have assigned to it. Limited power, and usually in matters of defense and foreign commerce. At the present time, there is only one confederation: the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of 11 of the 15 republics which made up the old Soviet Union.

Relationship Between Legislature and Executive Branches

This includes:

  • Presidential Government — Features a separation of powers. In a presidential government, the executive and legislative branches are independent and coequal. The executive and legislative branches each can check the actions of the other branch. President chosen independently of the legislature, holds office for a fixed term, and has powers not subject to direct control of the legislature.
  • Parliamentary Government — Members of the executive branch are also members of the
    legislative branch (the parliament). Executive is made up of the prime minister or premier and that official’s cabinet. Executive is leader of the majority party or of a coalition of parties and is chosen by parliament. Cabinet is chosen from members of parliament. Executive is subject to parliament’s direct control. Executive remains in office only as long as policies have confidence of majority. No confidence vote requires executive resign. No checks and balances exists (such in the United States).

The Number Who Can Participate in Government

Depending on the form of Government:

  • Dictatorship — Dictatorships exercise limited authority over the people. Participation in
    government is limited to the individual or group who rules. Those who rule are not responsible to the will of the people. No accountability. Dictators typically gain power by force. All dictatorships are authoritarian, i.e., absolute power and totalitarian, i.e.,authority over nearly every aspect of life. Examples: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union and PR of China. One person dictatorships rare: Muammar al-Qaddafi. Usually militaristic, have mock elections, and aggressive.
  • Democracy — In a democracy, sovereignty is located with the people who hold the power and give consent to the government to rule.

There are two main types of democracy:

  • Direct democracy: Will of people translated into public policy directly by people themselves,
    in mass meetings. Doesn’t exist in any national level.
  • Representative democracy: Small group of people elected by the people to act on their
    behalf to express their popular will. They are held accountable to the people through elections.

Three Standard Forms

Political writers from the time of Aristotle have been singularly unanimous in their classification of the forms of government. There are three ways in which states may be governed. They may be governed by one man, or by a number of men, small in proportion to the whole number of men in the state, or by a number large in proportion to the whole number of men in the state. The government may be a monarchy, an aristocracy or a democracy. The same terms are used by John Austin as were used by Aristotle, and in very nearly the same sense. The determining quality in governments in both writers, and it may safely be said in all intermediate writers, is the numerical relation between the constituent members of the government and the population of the state.

There were, of course, enormous differences between the state-systems present to the mind of the Greek philosopher and the English jurist. Aristotle was thinking of the small independent states of Greece, Austin of the great peoples of modern Europe. The unit of government in the one case was a city, in the other a nation. This difference is of itself enough to invalidate all generalization founded on the common terminology. But on one point there is a complete parallel between the politics of Aristotle and the politics of Austin. The Greek cities were to the rest of the world very much what European nations and European colonies are to the rest of the world now. They were the only communities in which the governed visibly took some share in the work of government.

Outside the European system, as outside the Greek system, we have only the stereotyped uniformity of despotism, whether savage or civilized. The question of forms of government, therefore, belongs characteristically to the European races. The virtues and defects of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy are the virtues and defects manifested by the historical governments of Europe. The generality of the language used by political writers must not blind us to the fact that they are thinking only of a comparatively small portion of mankind.

Greek Politics

Aristotle divides governments according to two principles. In all states the governing power seeks either its own advantage or the advantage of the whole state, and the government is bad or good accordingly. In all states the governing power is one man, or a few men or many men. Hence six varieties of government, three of which are bad and three good. For informaion about the types of government of Aristotle, click here.

The Government of Rome

During the whole period of freedom the government of Rome was, in theory at least, municipal self-government. Each citizen had a right to vote laws in his own person in the comitia of the centuries or the tribes. The administrative powers of government were, however, in the hands of a bureaucratic assembly, recruited from the holders of high public office. More about the government of Rome here.


The Roman empire bequeathed to modern Europe the theory of universal dominion. The nationalities which grew up after its fall arranged themselves on the basis of territorial sovereignty. Leaving out of account the free municipalities of the middle ages, the problem of government had now to be solved, not for small urban communities, but for large territorial nations. The medieval form of government was feudal. One common type pervaded all the relations of life. The relation of king and lord was like the relation between lord and vassal (see the entry about Feudalism here).

Parliamentary Government in the English System

The right of the commons to share the power of the king and lords in legislation, the exclusive right of the commons to impose taxes, the disappearance of the clergy as a separate order, were all important steps in the movement towards popular government. The extinction of the old feudal nobility in the dynastic wars of the 15th century simplified the question by leaving the crown face to face with parliament. For information about the Parliamentary Government in the English System, click here.

Leading Features of Parliamentary Government

The parliamentary government developed by England out of feudal materials has been deliberately accepted as the type of constitutional government all over the world. Its leading features are popular representation more or less extensive, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet or consolidated ministry. In connexion with all of these, numberless questions of the highest practical importance have arisen. The issue is addressed in the entry about the double chamber in Europe and the Cabinet Government (the peculiar functions of the English cabinet, which are not easily matched in any foreign system).

Change of Power in the English System

One of the most difficult problems of government is how to provide for the devolution of political power, and perhaps no other question is so generally and justly applied as the test of a working constitution. If the transmission works smoothly, the constitution, whatever may be its other defects, may at least be pronounced stable. It would be tedious to enumerate all the contrivances which this problem has suggested to political societies. Here, see more about the change of power in the English system.

Change of Power in the United States

The United States offers a very different solution of the problem. The American president is at once king and prime minister; and there is no titular superior to act as a conduit-pipe between him and his successor. Here, see more about the change of power in the American system.

Change of Power in Europe

The established practice of England and America may be compared with the constitutionalism of France. Here, see more about the change of power in the European system.

The Relationship between Government and Laws

It might be supposed that, if any general proposition could be established about government, it would be one establishing some constant relation between the form of a government and the character of the laws which it enforces. The technical language of the English school of jurists is certainly of a kind to encourage such a supposition. The entire body of law in force in a country at any moment is regarded as existing solely by the fiat of the governing power. (1) There is information about the Relationship between Government and Laws in this entry.

Literature Review on Forms of Government

In the Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy, [1] Victor S. DeSantis offers the following summary about the topic of Forms of Government: This entry defines the most common forms of municipal and county governments, and the advantages of each.


Notes and References

  1. Entry about Forms of Government in the Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy (2015, Routledge, Oxford, United Kingdom)

See Also

Further Reading

  • Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance (2018, Springer International Publishing, Germany)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

See Also

  • Government History
  • History of Government
  • Government Classifications
  • Government
  • Head of Government
  • Government Terror
  • Communism Early Forms
  • Central Government

Unitary government; federal government; confederation; presidential government;
parliamentary government; dictatorship; democracy; direct democracy; representative democracy

Further Reading



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