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A government is a system of leadership and administration that guides and controls an organization, especially a state. Although a single person may be able to effectively lead a very small organization and make all the decisions himself, larger organizations require more complex governmental structures. This often means multiple layers of government, which may be set up along very different means. A state may comprise many subordinate territories with their own governments reporting to the national leaders; these territories may in turn be divided into counties or other smaller regions, and finally each city may have its own government subject to the higher levels. Large cities may even themselves be split into multiple districts that have their own local governments.

Even at the highest level, a large government isn't generally run solely by a single individual. There may be one leader who has the final say, but he's likely to be aided by a cadre of advisers and assistants, and may delegate much of his work to ministers and other functionaries. Many governments comprise several separate branches, so that total power doesn't rest in any one person or small group, but is shared among different bodies that each have their own purviews and can to some degree keep each other in check. Where formalized, the rules and guidelines laying out the manner of operation of a particular government are known as its constitution, although some autocratic governments may get by without any formal constitution, with the simple understanding that the rules are whatever those in power say they are.

While the form of government of a particular state or organization may remain more or less constant, the particular individuals holding governmental positions may vary. Old officials may resign or die, or be ousted by their superiors or, if the form of government allows it, by the populace. In some cases, the constitution imposes specific term limits on some officials, ensuring that they must automatically step down from their positions after a set time period, though it may allow for them to be reëlected. Depending on the government, new officials may then be voted in by the people, or appointed by other officials or bodies. Even despots who intend to rule for life are not necessarily immortal, and may find it necessary to name successors to provide for their policies after their passing, though depending on how strong the despot's hold really was this isn't to say that those successors will find their accession to power smooth and unopposed. (And of course even some despots who were immortal have turned out to be not quite as immortal as they thought, or at least not immune to being overthrown.)



Governments can be roughly classified into two groups: authoritarian and democratic. A authoritarian government rules by fiat; the ruling group has complete control and dominion, and needs no input from the general populace to make its decision. In extreme cases, a government that strives to control every aspect of life and admit no dissent at all is known as totalitarian. Often an authoritarian government is ruled by a single person, in which case it is called an autocracy, or a dictatorship. In a democratic government, on the other hand, the citizens themselves have a say in the government. This may mean that that they directly vote on all matters of interest (a direct democracy), but more often it means that the general populace elects representatives who govern for them (a representative democracy).

Naturally, the distinction between autocratic and democratic states is not one of sharp distinction with no intermediate forms. There are many governments that don't fall neatly into one category or the other, and may be regarded as intermediate or transitional between the two. One axis worth considering is the number of people who are officially empowered to influence the government. While a democracy is often said to be a rule by the people, in practice it's usually the case that not everyone in the state is allowed to vote, but only those who meet certain criteria. In the United States of America and other modern democracies on Earth, the only necessary criteria are that voters be citizens, be above a certain age, and (in some areas) not be convicted felons. Formerly the franchise (the right to vote) was withheld also from women, from blacks, from non-property-owners, and from certain religions. It's clear that if the franchise is restricted to a sufficiently small body—at the extreme, to one person—, what exists is not a democracy at all, but an autocracy; what is not clear is where exactly the line can be drawn dividing them.

In any case, governments intermediate between autocracies and democracies are sometimes called anocracies, especially governments formerly autocratic and transitioning to democracy but with much stratification and inequality remaining. Rather than combining the best of both worlds of autocracies and democracies, anocracies tend to be more unstable and more dangerous then either, with violent crime much higher in anocratic states than in states on either side. Autocracies and democracies suppress such violence by slightly different means—autocracies more by threat of punishment, democracies more by peer pressure—but both are much better at doing so than are anocracies which aren't as good at either technique. The fact that they are both effective in keeping down crime, however, does not imply that authoritarian governments and democracies are equal. While they may both be able to inhibit violence between citizens, autocracies are much more vulnerable to violence by and between states. While the frequent statement that two democracies have never gone to war with each other may not be entirely true, studies have shown that, all else being equal, a democracy is significantly less likely to go to war than an autocracy is, especially with another democracy. Furthermore, while democracies are by no means free of racism and prejudice, state-sponsored genocides seem to have occurred exclusively in totalitarian states.

Governments can also be classified by the nature of the rulers. The following is a list of some types of government as defined by this criterion; note that these are not all mutually exclusive, and many of them can apply to either authoritarian or democratic government. In a monarchy, for instance, the monarch can be an authoritarian absolute ruler (as in medieval England), or he can be a figurehead with constitutionally limited power while most actual political power resides in a democratically elected parliament (as in modern England). Note also that some of these government forms may seem inherently unlikely or impossible, and may not actually exist in literal form, the terms being primarily used figuratively—though that isn't to say some examples of such unusual government forms may not arise under certain exceptional circumstances. Many of the government forms listed below are, of course, only possible on magical worlds.


While the main role of government could be said to be to lead a state or organization, this doesn't mean that the government does nothing but issue commands. This is of course part of what a government does; the government passes laws to guide and restrict its citizens' actions for the better good of their fellow citizens and of the state—and/or, in the case of more self-interested governments, for the better good of the leaders. A government that did nothing but pass laws, however, would likely be rather ineffectual. Most notably, for the laws to have any meaning, the government also must have a way of enforcing them. Virtually all governments, therefore, also run or sponsor a formal system of law enforcement, which may include both statewide agencies at the national level and police or guard forces at the local level. This, in turn, leads to the necessity of interpreting the laws and judging whether or not an accused individual actually broke them, another duty the government must perform, or at least delegate to some authority. In some small authoritarian governments, this judgment may be as simple as a declaration by the dictator, but for large governments there may be an elaborate apparatus in place for this function.

Not all a government does relates directly to passing and enforcing laws, however. Most governments also provide some kinds of commodities and/or resources for their citizens, collectively called public services. Exactly which services this includes depends on the government, but common government services include education, health care, housing, libraries, postal service, libraries, waste management, state-sponsored churches (in states with official religions), and the free distribution of goods such as water, food, and power. Different states may offer very different combinations of these services.

Unless a government covers an entire isolated world, it also must look outward at other governments it must deal with, and must also direct its attention toward diplomacy and defense. Toward the former end, it may appoint diplomats and establish embassies; toward the latter, most state governments field some sort of military. Naturally, not all states are content to simply coexist with their neighbors, or passively react to other states' actions; many states take the offensive, either for territorial expansion, to seize resources, to preempt attacks by their rivals, or for ideological differences. The same militaries that serve for defense, of course, also serve perfectly well for offense, although the size of the military may need to be increased (either by enforced conscription or by the profferment of incentives) during a time of fullscale war.

Public services, militaries, and the government's other provisions and activities—not to mention the salaries (or personal treasure-hoarding) of government officials—require money and resources. While some companies or other organizations may have enough income to cover their needs, this is rarely true of states; while a state may own some profitable enterprises, their profit is rarely enough to cover all the state's expenses. Conquering states may enrich themselves by plundering vanquished nations, but this is obviously far from an inexhaustible source of income. Most state governments must therefore demand from their populaces a certain portion of their income, a process called taxation. Not all the people of the state are necessarily taxed the same amount, or the same proportions of their incomes, and some favored groups may not be taxed at all. In any case, some citizens almost inevitably will resent the taxation, especially if it is too high (though what level would be considered "too high" depends on the individual), and especially if it is being spent on projects they don't approve of (including, but not limited to, personally enriching the rulers). Since taxes are generally necessary for the government's function, some balance must therefore be struck between the rate of taxation and the amount it disburses on public services, military maintenance, and other expenditures.


Governments often exist in hierarchies, a number of governments subject to the umbrella of a larger government. This system may extend many details deep. The degree of autonomy of the inferior levels varies; they may only be able to act within strict limits set by the governments over them, entrusted with local law enforcement and disbursement of government services but with little capability for self-determination, or they may be empowered to pass their own laws and given broad discretion in their activities, so long as they do not violate the basic tenets of the government over them. The officials of subsidiary governments may be appointed by those above them, but they may also be elected, or their positions be hereditary, just as with the overall government. In politics, the condition of not being bound to any higher government is called sovereignty, and a state fulfilling this condition is called a sovereign state. This is not to say that sovereign states may not in turn be allied or united into larger organizations (as, for instance, most sovereign states of modern Earth belong to the United Nations), but generally these intergovernmental organizations set policies and recommendations conformance to which is essentially voluntary on the part of the member states, enforced possibly by sanctions but not by physical coercion.

While a government may be divided "vertically" into different levels of the hierarchy, it may also be divided "horizontally" into different branches within each level. Each of these branches takes on a different aspect of the government, though not all governments distinguish the same branches, and some may not separate the government into different branches at all. Authoritarian governments, in particular, generally invest the leaders with all the government's powers, and if a highly authoritarian government has separate branches it is only because the leaders chose to delegate some of their activities to them, and the leaders can still overrule them on a whim. In democratic governments, on the other hand, the constitutions are typically set up specifically to ensure that the branches remain separate and exert "checks and balances" each other, to prevent any one branch from arrogating too great a share of the governmental power. Such a system is known as separation of powers.

The three most commonly distinguished branches are the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The executive branch is concerned with enforcement of the law and the basic administration of the government. Even in a democratic government with separation of powers, it is the leader of the executive branch who is most often considered the overall leader of the government, though many governments include separate heads of state who represent the government but whose position is mostly symbolic and who have little or no actual executive power. The legislative branch is concerned with passing new laws, as well as amending or repealing existing laws. The judicial branch is concerned with interpreting laws, which may include judging whether or not individuals have violated the law and, if so, what punishment is warranted, as well as deciding whether new laws passed by the legislative branch comform to the state's constitution. Some governments may include branches aside from these three, such as the following:

  • A consistory branch encharged with overseeing the state religion(s). (No sovereign state of modern Earth officially has such a branch on equal footing with other branches of the government, but consistory branches are fairly common on magical worlds where the gods play a direct role in people's lives.)
  • A disquisitive branch that verifies the qualifications of prospective government employees. (The government of modern China has such a branch, called the 考試院 (Kâoshì Yuàn, Examination Yuan).)
  • An electoral branch that supervises the elections of government officials. (Such branches exist in the governments of several states of Latin America.)
  • A revisory branch with the responsibility of auditing the other branches of the government. (Revisory, or audit, branches exist in the governments of China, Costa Rica, and the European Union.)

Government employees collectively, excluding those employed by the military, are often known as civil servants.


An organization with no form of government is often known as an anarchy, though this is an ambiguous term that is also used to refer to certain government forms that go out of their ways to minimize the use of force. (Certainly people who identify as anarchists generally mean the latter.) It's dubious that a complete absence of government, however, could exist in practice, at least for any significant length of time. Having no government of any kind, no means for a group to make decisions, that each person in a population acted completely independently. This may make sense if each person lives in complete isolation, but as soon as they start interacting it seems likely that either they will formulate some democratic method of decision-making or, perhaps more likely, some individual or group will seize control and establish themselves as leader. Even alogous animals have governments, though they aren't usually called by that term; such bestial organizational schemata have given rise to such terms in English as "pecking order" and "alpha male".

Stateless hunter-gatherer societies tend toward democracy, with all members of the tribes or clans more or less equal. Once they settle down and grow in numbers, however, this egalitarianism is harder to maintain; the first known settled governments were autocratic, presumably the result of a powerful individual managing to dominate their fellows. As civilizations grow further, their governments necessarily grow more complex. In many cases, most people pledged their loyalty and labor to powerful landholders in return for protection, who in turn pledged their own loyalty to more powerful leaders—a system known as feudalism.

Organized democracy tends to be a relatively late development, perhaps arising as the populace forces concessions from formerly autocratic leaders. Once it does fully form, though, democracy tends to be a stable form of government, more resistant than autocracies to the caprices of a single cruel or incompetent ruler.

No form of government, however, is completely immune to change. Governments may evolve over time, reacting to changing conditions and sensibilities. More abrupt changes are also possible; If the people become too dissatisfied with the government, they may foment a revolution to overthrow it, replacing it with one more to their liking—though this doesn't always go as intended, and the revolutionaries may find themselves setting in place a new government as bad as or worse than the one they overthrew. Not only oppressive, unpopular governments are vulnerable to being overthrown; while the people may not rise up en masse against more benevolent governments, certainly power-hungry cabals and special interest groups may plot to overthrow any government for their own ends. Revolution is not the only possible cause of drastic change in governments; a conquering state may impose a change in government as well, and some governments may collapse through corruption, insolvency, or other internal factors.

See also

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