4 Major Theories of the Origin of Government


4 Major Theories of the Origin of Government

The previous post examined the meaning of government and how it differs from the concept of the state. It also examined the basic functions performed by the government.

In this article, we shall examine the origin and necessity of government. The major theories of the origins of government include: the evolutionary theory, force theory, divine theory and social contract theory.

These theories, in their explanations of the origins of government harp variously on family or clan-bound structure, force, supernatural being and the contract between the government and the governed respectively.

Be that as it may, man generally accepts government as a necessary, if not sufficient condition, for peaceful and prosperous existence, and for the interest of all in society.


Table of Content 

By the end of this article, you will be able to:

1. Defined government

2. Identify and explain the 4 major theories of the origin of government

3. Discuss the necessity of government


Definitions  of Government

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers three definitions of government:

(i) 'The group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.

(ii) 'A particular system used for controlling country, state, etc.'

(iii) 'The process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.'

Evident from the foregoing is the fact that the government can be defined by the people involved, the system in place, or the process in use.

Thus, the government is defined as the vehicle for the governance of society, which is the establishment and enforcement of rules and provisioning of basic services which society requires but which would otherwise not be available or might be in conflict between individuals and the various subdivisions within society.

Similar to the foregoing, Black's Law Dictionary posits that institutions of the government regulate the relationships among members of a society and between the society and outsiders and that they have the authority to make decisions for the society to meet goals and maintain order.

The government plays a fundamental role in the economic development process. Market rules and operating procedures are set and enforced by the government. The government plays a role in the economy through the provision of public goods that are collective in nature and through efforts to counter market imperfections such as externalities or poor information. For example, the government provides public infrastructure that services economic activities. It also provides public services to both business and households. Again, the government decides what is best for the individuals and groups and how to utilize available resources to provide the best living standard for the citizenry. Can you imagine living in a society without transportation, water supply, road network and without other social infrastructural facilities? How it would be like if nobody was charged with the responsibility to make sure laws are made and respected or to provide a plan where buildings should go and keep our environment clean and safe?

We need the government to take care of many of these things. Government operations are those activities involved in the running of a state to produce value for the citizens. The significant feature of modern (liberal) government is a democracy, and two major attributes of democracy found in most writings on liberal democracy are the principle of rule of law and the theory of separation of powers.

Scholars have argued that the government can be explained and understood along three broad interpretations.

These include:                        

1.  Government as a process of governing

2.  Government as an institution of the state

3.  Government as a field of study


Government as a Process of Governing

As a process of governing, the government refers to how a particular state is being governed. It also means the entire processes, operations and activities that are involved in the governing of a state. In the course of governing a state, the government is divided into different organs and tiers, which include the legislature, judiciary and executive organs, and the federal, state and local governments respectively.

The legislative arm is responsible for lawmaking; such laws must not be arbitrary but should be based on a critical assessment of the collection of relevant information. The executive arm performs the activity of implementation of these laws made by the legislature.

The executive mobilizes all the necessary machinery to ensure the implementation of adequate policies and laws made by the legislature. More often than not, problems arise while implementing government policies; such problems are resolved by the judiciary. The judiciary performs a crucial role in explaining or interpreting the laws properly.

It is therefore seen that both the organs and tiers of government are all effectively involved in the effective running of the affairs of a state.

Hence, we can posit that government as an art or process of governing refers to the process through which the legislature, executive and judicial organs of government variously carry out their assigned functions and responsibilities at federal, state and local governments.


Government as an Institution of the State

This refers to the mechanism that guides the control and direction of a state. These are the institutions, Ministries, parastatals and Agencies (MDAs) of state responsible for the administration of the state.

The institutions of a state are broadly categorized into formal and informal institutions. The formal institutions are the legislature, executive and judiciary; while the informal institutions comprise of the pressure groups, political parties and trade unions.

The government in this context refers to the institution of a State because it is formed and established for the common good of the people who chose to come together and have a common destiny. Government is therefore necessary as an institution of the state because it is through the government that the will of the state, which is an abstract entity, is realized.

Government transforms the abstractness of the state into a concrete reality that can be seen and recognized. It is the government as an institution that governs, and this entails regulating individual’s relationship and providing for the fundamental human rights of the people as well as the protection of citizens from internal insecurity and external aggression.

Government as a Field of Study

As a field of study, the government is seen as a branch of human endeavor that studies agencies, institutions and the forces that operate in the state. It is studied as Government in post-primary schools, and Political Science or Politics in higher institutions. Government as an academic field of study also has sub-disciplines or fields such as Political Theory, Political Economy, Comparative Government, and International

Relations, Public Administration, Public Policy, Local Government Studies, among others.

As a field of study, Government imbues an individual with logical reasoning. It prepares citizens for active and meaningful participation in the art of governing. More fundamentally, it not only enlightens citizen of their fundamental human rights and obligations but also creates a deep sense of national consciousness, cohesion and patriotism in them.

4 Major Theories of the Origin of Government

1. Evolutionary Theory

2. Force Theory

3. Divine theory

4. Social contract theory

1. Evolutionary Theory

The evolutionary theory posits that government originates from a family or clan-bound structure. This explains the formation of the world's first political structures. These earliest and very loosely formed governments were the result of a shift from hunter-gatherer societies (otherwise called the wandering band) to more settled agricultural societies. As families joined to form clans and clans joined to form villages, the need for leaders and a central organizational structure developed.

These leaders helped determine how to address unfamiliar issues, such as water rights for crop irrigation and the distribution of other resources. They also provided an increased sense of safety and security for the society.

In many early societies, these first states developed monarchies, with rule based on membership in a ruling family. In modern times, some governments continue to be led by a succession of members from the same family. For example, in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the king has been descended from the Āl Saʿūd family since 1744.


2. Force Theory  

The force theory espouses the idea that government originates from taking control of the state by force and is often found in a dictatorship-a type of government characterized by one-person or one-party authoritarian rule.

Historically, this has been achieved in some cases through forcible invasion or occupation when a more dominant people or state takes control of the political system of a less powerful people or state, imposing its governmental system on that group.

New governments can also be formed by force during revolutions or coups within a country. A coup is the overthrow of an established government, and the resulting leader or dictator is most often a military figure. An example of the force theory occurred in Cuba in 1959 when revolutionary Fidel Castro and a small force of guerrilla soldiers defeated the national army and took control of the government.


3. Divine Right Theory  

For the divine right theory, government originates with power vested in an individual by God or gods. Generally, monarchs lead governments of this type. This theory was followed in ancient times, including by the ancient Egyptians and Maya.

The idea of divine right experienced a resurgence in western Europe in the 16th to the 18th centuries, when King James I of England, several French monarchs, and other rulers asserted that their authority came directly from God—and thus could not be challenged. Russian czars, such as Peter the Great, believed their autocratic rule was God-given, and they used their power to gain territory, wage war, and impose taxation on their subjects.

4. Social Contract Theory

The social contract theory of government was the result of centuries of frustration with the unchecked power of monarchs. Under this theory, the government is a kind of contract in which those in power have responsibilities toward those they govern and the governed respect the power of the governing individuals. There are various versions of the social contract theory, ranging from an emphasis on maintaining a peaceful social order to a focus on using individual free will to determine what is best for the public good, or that which benefits all people in a society.

Although the social contract theory has numerous variations, at its core is the idea that government is an agreement between those who govern and those who are governed.

This theory was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The founders of the United States drew heavily on social contract theory in the construction of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.


Necessity of Government

The idea of government, its origin and necessity has had both bourgeois and revolutionary approaches. However, bourgeois writings and discourses on government have pre-dominated political science literature in particular and social science literature in general.

Thus, political thinkers and writers have varied views on the idea and purpose of government in society. Aristotle expressed the view that government exist for man in society and it exists for the sake of the best life. John Locke maintains that the purpose of the government is the preservation of man’s lives, liberties and property. Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1976) sees the purpose of government in terms of three fold duties, namely,

(i) Protection of the society from foreign aggression.

(ii) Establishment of an exact administration of justice to every member of the society.

(iii) Establishment of certain public works and certain public institution for the general welfare of the people.

According to Herbert Spencer, the government exists to prevent an individual from infringing the rights of another. Government is, therefore “a joint-stock protection company for mutual assurance”.

To the utilitarian school, of which Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill the well-known exponents, the primary purpose of government is to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Harold Laski’s view which represents the modern view on the purposes of government cannot be said to be fundamentally different from the views the state as an “organization or enabling the mass of men to realize social good on the largest possible scale”. Laski sees the primary purpose of the state as the maintenance of citizen’s inalienable rights. Again, that government exists to control the levels at which men are to live as men to protect the interests of men as citizens.

From the above, man generally accept government (following the bourgeois logic) as a necessary, if not sufficient condition, for peaceful and prosperous existence, for the interest of all in society.

It is in this context that government is defined as the highest institution of every state; an impartial arbiter with a central authority which claims allegiance from all members of the state, capable of imposing its will on all members of the state if need be by means of force, and which is ready to protect the lives and properties of all members within its confines.

Read On: Meaning and Functions of Government

Conclusion on 4 Theories of the Origin of Government

The question about the origin of organized government has been discussed for centuries. Although four theories have been accepted as to how the first governments were established, there is no concrete evidence to support any of the proposed theories. Irrespective of its origin, type or form, the government is necessary for peaceful co-existence of all in society.

This post has examined the origin and necessity of government. The major theories of the origins of government include: the evolutionary theory, force theory, divine theory and social contract theory. The evolutionary and force theories, in their explanations of the origins of government, harp on family or clan-bound structure and force.

We also saw that divine theory and social contract theory based their explanations on the existence of a supernatural being and the contract between the government and the governed respectively.

The article also noted that man generally accepts government as a necessity for the peaceful and prosperous existence of all in society.                                  

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