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A government is the body that has the power to make and enforce laws within an organization or group. In its broadest sense, "to govern" means to administer or supervise, whether over an area of land, a set group of people, or a collection of assets. The word government is derived the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kubernites), which means "steersman", "governor", "pilot" or "rudder".



One approach is to define government as the dominant better decision-making arm of the state, and define the latter on the basis of the control it has over violence and the use of force within its territory. Specifically, the state (and by extension the government) has been considered by some to be the entity that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a territory. This view has been taken by the political economist Max Weber and subsequent political philosophers. The exact meaning of it depends on what is understood by “legitimate”. If we use the term in an ethical sense, then this definition would suggest that an organisation might be considered a state by its supporters but not by its detractors. An alternative definition is to take "legitimate" violence to be simply that which has active or tacit acceptance by the vast majority of the population. In this view, the presence of insurrection or civil war against an entity would jeopardise its claim to be a state, provided the insurrection enjoyed significant popular support. Similarly, an entity that shared military or police power with independent militias and bandits could be considered to have a monopoly on “legitimate” violence but to be failing to enforce it, reducing its claim to statehood. In practice, such situations are often described as "failed states".

Government can also be defined as the political means of creating and enforcing laws; typically via a bureaucratic hierarchy. Under this definition, a purely despotic organization which controls a territory without defining laws would not be considered a government.

Another alternative is to define a government as an organisation that attempts to maintain control of a territory, where "control" involves activities such as collecting taxes, controlling entry and exit to the state, preventing encroachment of territory by neighbouring states and preventing the establishment of alternative governments within the country.

In Commonwealth English, the word "Government" can also be used to refer only to the executive branch, in this context being a synonym for the word "administration" in American English (e.g. the Blair Government, the Bush Administration). In countries using the Westminster system, the Government (or party in Government) will also usually control the legislature. The French use of the word gouvernement covers both meanings, whereas Canadian French generally uses it to mean the executive branch. The German word Regierung refers only to government as the executive branch; the wider meaning of the word, government as a system, can be translated as Staatsgewalt.

Forms of government

Main article: Form of government

Various forms of government have been implemented. A government in a developed state is likely to have various sub-organisations known as offices, departments, or agencies, which are headed by politically appointed officials, often called ministers or secretaries. Ministers may in theory act as advisors to the head of state, but in practice have a certain amount of direct power in specific areas. In most modern democracies, the elected legislative assembly has the power to dismiss the government, but in those states that have a separate head of government and head of state, the head of state generally has great latitude in appointing a new one.


There are a wide range of theories about the reasons for establishing governments. The four major ones are briefly described below. Note that they do not always fully oppose each other - it is possible for a person to subscribe to a combination of ideas from two or more of these theories.

Greed and oppression

Many political philosophies that are opposed to the existence of a government (such as Anarchism, and to a lesser extent Marxism), as well as others, emphasize the historical roots of governments - the fact that governments, along with private property, originated from the authority of warlords and petty despots who took, by force, certain patches of land as their own (and began exercising authority over the people living on that land). Thus, it is argued that governments exist to enforce the will of the strong and oppress the weak.

Order and tradition

The various forms of conservatism, by contrast, generally see the government as a positive force that brings order out of chaos, establishes laws to end the "war of all against all", encourages moral virtue while punishing vice, and respects tradition. Sometimes, in this view, the government is seen as something ordained by a higher power, as in the divine right of kings, which human beings have a duty to obey.

Natural rights

Natural rights are the basis for the theory of government shared by most branches of liberalism (including libertarianism). In this view, human beings are born with certain natural rights, and governments are established strictly for the purpose of protecting those rights. What the natural rights actually are is a matter of dispute among liberals; indeed, each branch of liberalism has its own set of rights that it considers to be natural, and these rights are sometimes mutually exclusive with the rights supported by other liberals.

Social contract

Last but certainly not least, one of the most influential theories of government in the past two hundred years has been the social contract, on which modern democracy and most forms of socialism are founded. The social contract theory holds that governments are created by the people in order to provide for collective needs (such as safety from crime) that cannot be properly satisfied using purely individual means. Governments thus exist for the purpose of serving the needs and wishes of the people, and their relationship with the people is clearly stipulated in a "social contract" (a constitution and a set of laws) which both the government and the people must abide by. If a majority is unhappy, it may change the social contract. If a minority is unhappy, it may persuade the majority to change the contract, or it may opt out of it by emigration or secession.


Main article: government operations

Governments concern themselves with regulating and administering many areas of human activity, such as trade, education, medicine, entertainment, and war.

Enforcement of power

Governments use a variety of methods to maintain the established order, such as police and military forces, (particularly under despotism, see also police state), making agreements with other states, and maintaining support within the state. Typical methods of maintaining support and legitimacy include providing the infrastructure for administration, justice, transport, communication, social welfare etc., claiming support from deities, providing benefits to elites, holding elections for important posts within the state, limiting the power of the state through laws and constitutions (see also Bill of Rights) and appealing to nationalism. Different political ideologies hold different ideas on what the government should or should not do.


The modern standard unit of territory is a country. In addition to the meaning used above, the word state can refer either to a government or to its territory. Within a territory, subnational entities may have local governments which do not have the full power of a national government (for example, they will generally lack the authority to declare war or carry out diplomatic negotiations).

Scale of government

Main articles: government ownership, government spending

The scale to which government should exist and operate in the world is a matter of debate. Government spending in developed country varies considerally but generally makes up between about 30% and 70% of their GDP.

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