Government: Types and Features

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

To understand how a government functions, it is important to know what is meant by the term government. Read on to learn about the basic definitions of government, the different types, their levels of control, their features, and their importance.

Image of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.
Government is a series of rules that constrain human behavior in all sorts of ways. (Image: Charles Toler/Shutterstock)

What Is Government?

In the most straightforward sense, government is power. It is a person or body that has authority over land and people. To be a little more specific, a well-known American government textbook defines it this way: “Government is composed of institutions and processes through which a land and its people are ruled.”

What is understood from these basic definitions is that government, at its core, is a series of rules that constrain human behavior in all sorts of ways. Usually, these constraints are meant to help humans achieve some mutually positive collective outcome. But as is seen, people often disagree on what the rules should be, what the preferred outcomes should be, and how to develop the processes to achieve their goals.

Learn more about the system of federalism.

Types of Governments

To understand what a government is, one can look at different types of governments and understand their features.

There are many types of governments. In order to distinguish one type of government from another, two basic questions need to be asked: First, who governs? That is, who is in control of the rules. Second, how much government control is allowed in a particular system? With these two bits of information, people can classify different types of government.

Autocracy, Oligarchy, and Democracy

When one talks about who is in control, there are three examples.

An image of four hands casting a ballot.
The United States has a democratic government. (Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

In an autocracy, the government is led by a single leader, such as a king or a dictator. In today’s world, one might think of Saudi Arabia or Cuba in this category.

In an oligarchy, a small group of people maintains power over the rules. This could be a group of military officers, landowners, a single family, or wealthy merchants. Today, one might classify Russia, China, or Turkey as oligarchies.

In a democracy, the populace has some influence over the rules and decision-making. Modern democracies include the United Kingdom, India, Norway, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and the United States.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, Wondrium.

A Constitutional Government

When thinking about the level of control that a ruler has, one might think of constitutional, authoritarian, or totalitarian governments.

In a constitutional government, there are strict limits on what government can do and the means by which it can do things. Constitutions can be written or unwritten. The United States has a short, formal written constitution that outlines the basic parameters of power for its rulers.

By contrast, in the United Kingdom, there is no single document that forms its constitution; however, it is still considered a constitutional democracy because of a series of historical documents that make up its constitution, such as the Magna Carta adopted in 1215 and its Bill of Rights, adopted in 1689.

Authoritarian and Totalitarian Regimes

In an authoritarian government, there are very few real limits on government power, but there are frequently some other institutions that keep power in check. Examples of these might include a strong church or other religious organization, some territories associated with the nation that are considered to be autonomous, or sometimes labor unions or other strong organized groups of people that serve as a restraint on the government leaders.

In authoritarian systems, typically these other groups are not controlled by the government which allows them to serve as an appropriate check on power. Today, countries like Belarus, China, and Vietnam are thought of as authoritarian.

In totalitarian regimes, there are few, if any, limits on government. In fact, the government will often try to eliminate any groups or organizations that seek to challenge its power. Today, one might consider North Korea a totalitarian regime; historically, one would think of Germany under Adolph Hitler as totalitarian.

Learn more about the concept of civil liberties.

Features of a Government

All types of governments have two features: means of coercion and a means of collecting revenue.

Means of coercion means that all governments have to have some mechanism by which they get individuals to go along with the rules. The United States uses a series of means of coercion, including threats of criminal or civil legal punishment to compel desirable behaviors.

Image of a Senate floor with empty chairs and tables.
A means of coercion and a means of collecting revenue are two features of all governments. (Image: ksb/Shutterstock)

In authoritarian regimes, governments might use threats of violence or dismantling of individual liberties to achieve compliance. All governments use some form of tools like these to enforce the rules.

Second, all governments need revenue because they require money for their systems to function. Therefore, all governments need some method of collecting revenue. The usual way of doing this is to use some combination of taxation and fines.

Learn more about civil rights.

The Purpose of a Government

After understanding what government is and the different forms it can take, there arises a fundamental question: Why do people need governments at all? 

Throughout history, scholars and philosophers have developed different answers to this question. Back in the mid-1600s, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the purpose of government is to maintain order. According to him, without some form of collective action and order, humans would resort to violence as they fight for resources.

In the late 1600s, the philosopher John Locke built upon the Hobbesian idea and stated that all humans have a natural right to “life, liberty, and property”, with the ability to own property an essential part of being human and having liberties. He argued that the purpose of government is to protect the property rights of individuals.

David Hume, who wrote in the 1700s, relied on the concept of a “public good”. He used the term ‘good’ here in the economic sense where good is a physical thing having two particular features.

First, a public good is “non-excludable”—meaning once it exists, no one can be excluded from participating or enjoying the thing. The second characteristic of a public good is it is “non-rival” in how it is consumed. This means that the amount of the good doesn’t diminish the more it is consumed.

For Hume, the primary purpose of a government was to provide public goods.

Common Questions about Types and Features of Government

Q: How can government be defined?

A well-known American government textbook defines it as: “Government is composed of institutions and processes through which a land and its people are ruled.”

Q: What is an autocracy?

In an autocracy, the government is led by a single leader, such as a king or a dictator.

Q: Why do governments need revenue?

All governments need revenue because they require money for their systems to function.

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