Basis for Classifications of Government


Basis for Classifications of Government

When a term is used to describe a State or her agent (government) in comparison with others, it simply refers to certain features and characteristics they either have in common or differences. 

It is a terminology used by the political scientist concerning certain selected items from tradition, customs, institutions and the system of laws guiding the administrative system of a society or organization.

A government reflects one of the institutional forms depending on the specific functions the government and the governed play in the system.

This article examines the classification of governments by political philosophers such as Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu etc and factors that determine the types of government. It also x-rays institutional differentiation of government.


Table of Content

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

1. Explain various classifications of government

2. Discuss different types of government

3. Differentiate between different governments.

Read On: Definition, Functions, Origin & Characteristics of the State

Classification of Governments by Political Philosophers


Basis for Classifications of Government


In ancient time, Aristotle classified government based on two principles viz: the number of persons in whose hands the authority of the state is vested and the purpose of the state. He postulates that the government is of two types – normal and the perverted forms of government.

He further explains the former as one when the ultimate aim of the government is the welfare of the people while the perverted form is one where the government machinery are used in promoting personal or group interest of the functionaries or a select few in the society. The real purpose of Aristotle’s classification is to justify the excellence of a particular form of rule – mixed government - called ‘polity’.

As regards the number of persons holding power, he says that the ruling power may reside in the hands of one, a few, or many persons while the nature of the exercise of their authority may be either good or bad.

He makes use of the grounds of quality and quantity of the ruling persons that eventually enables him to justify ‘polity’ as the best form of an attainable or a practicable government.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was aware of other forms of government such as tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy but he refused to consider them like other forms of government. According to him, those who were discontented under monarchy called it tyranny; those who were displeased with aristocracy called it oligarchy; and those who nursed some grudges against democracy called it anarchy.


John Locke

John Locke substantially follows Hobbes in his classification, with some differences of detail, he says, ‘according as the power of making laws is placed, such is the form of the commonwealth’.

If the majority, in whom the whole power of the community is placed at the dawn of civil society, retains the legislative power in their own hands and executes those laws by officers of their own appointing, the form of the government is a perfect democracy.

If they put the power of making laws into the hands of a few select men and their heirs or successors, then it is an oligarchy but if into the hands of one man, then, it is a monarchy either hereditary or elective.


Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu, a French political philosopher, held that states are of three types, the republican, the monarchic and the despotic. If all or part of the people has the sovereign power, the state is a republic, a democratic or an aristocratic one.

A monarchy is the rule of a single person according to law; a despotism, the rule of a single person arbitrarily. Montesquieu indicates the various principles animating the various forms of government, the sustaining and driving powers behind them.

In a democracy, the citizens’ principle of a republic takes the shape of the love of country and desire for equality. That the members of a ruling class will be moderate towards the people, maintain equality among them and enforce the laws against persons of rank - this is the virtue of an aristocracy.

The mainspring of the monarchy is honour: the confidence or conceit of the individual and of the governing classes concerning their own special importance, confidence that spurs men to accomplish things quite as much as virtue itself.

Despotism requires neither virtue nor honour, but fear that suppresses both courage and ambition among subjects. States or governments could be classified according to the type of political system in the country, concerning who exercises the effective or nominal political powers.

Read On: Definitions, Functions, Types and Characteristics of Election


Factors that Determine Types of Government

Political scientists have created numerous typologies for classifying political systems and forms of government. Nonetheless, there is no consensus on one best or the ideal method because the one chosen depends on the aspect of politics that interests the people most. Some of the factors are as follow:

1. Modernity

Countries of the world differ from one another in terms of per capital income, level of education, technological development, industrialization, urbanization and availability of infrastructural facilities. 

However, such factors tend to be highly inter-correlated because a country lacking in one respect is most likely to be less developed in other respects.

2. Location of Authority

Under a federal system, for instance, the powers for making important decisions are shared between the central, the component units and local authorities and in most cases, such is explained by the constitution.

In a unitary system, the right to make decisions on all political matters rests with the national government while the component units exist at the mercy of the central authority.

3. Integration

This refers to the extent to which the state’s apparatus is linked with the activities of individuals and groups in society. In some cases, the exercise of state powers is total while in some other climes, it is liberal or egalitarian.

At one end of the spectrum is anarchism or belief in limited or no government, which is utopian but on the other edge is a laissez-faire rule in which the government limits itself to limited obligatory functions that are considered necessary for the survival of the state. The next stage involves the ‘mixed economy’ where the government undertakes extensive political and economic functions under the influence of state socialism. At the far end of the spectrum is totalitarianism.


Institutional Differentiation of Government

Ordinarily, it appears easy to identify a form of government through institutions. For example, many people would infer that the United States of America is a federal republic while the defunct Soviet Union was a totalitarian state.

However, defining a form of government is especially problematic when trying to identify those elements that are peculiar to that form. There is a world of difference between the ability to identify a form of government and identifying the necessary characteristics of that form of government.

For example, in trying to identify the essential characteristics of a democracy, one might say "elections", “party system”, “judicial independence”, etc.

However, it may be noted that the authorities in both the former Soviet Union of the United States of America lay claims to some of these elements because citizens voted for candidates to public offices in their respective states.

The problem with such a comparison is that most people are not likely to accept it because it does not conform to their sense of reality. Since most people are not going to accept an evaluation that makes the former Soviet Union as democratic as the United States, the usefulness of the concept is undermined.

Therefore, in Political Science, it has long been a goal to create a typology or nomenclature of polities, as typologies of political systems are not obvious, especially in the comparative politics and international relations (Lewellen, 2003). One approach is to elaborate on the nature of the characteristics found within each regime.

In the example of the United States and the Soviet Union, both did conduct elections, and yet one important difference between these two regimes is that the USSR had a single-party system, with all other parties being outlawed.

In contrast, the United States effectively has a bipartisan system with political parties being regulated, but not forbidden.

In addition, most Westminster democracies such as the United Kingdom or countries in the Commonwealth of Nations usually have at least three major parties. A system generally seen as a representative democracy (for instance Canada, India and the United States) may also include measures providing for a degree of direct democracy in the form of referenda and for deliberative democracy in the form of the extensive processes required for a constitutional amendment. Another complication is that a huge number of political systems originate as socio-economic movements and are then carried into governments by specific parties naming themselves after those movements.

Experience with those movements in power, and the strong ties they may have to particular forms of government, can cause them to be considered as forms of government in themselves.

Read On: Types of Government with Examples


Conclusion on Basis for Classifications of Government

A political system is a system of politics and government that could be compared to the legal system, economic system, cultural system, and other social systems but it is different from them in some respects.

A political system could be defined on a spectrum from left, e.g. communism and to the right, e.g. capitalism. However, this is a very simplified view of a much more complex system of categories involving the views about who should have authority, how religious questions should be handled and what the government's control should be on its people and economy.

Our discussions in this unit have focused on the basis for classifying governments. From the study of the present and past governments in a society, we can explain, through an inductive process, principles regarding the organization of government, its structure and workings in different states or societies, especially after careful study of differences and similarities between them.

Some scholars prefer the term ‘classification of the forms of government’ on the ground that the ‘form of States’ is the same as the form of government.

We noted however that states differ not only in their forms of government but in their stated goals (e.g. totalitarian vs. democratic States) and their very nature (e.g. unitary vs. federal States).

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