Throughout history, humans have devised many forms of government. Monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Fascism and communism. And more. The following is a brief explanation of these various types, plus a few others thrown in for good measure.
The word “monarch” comes from the Greek language: The Greek word monos, which means “one” is paired with the Greek word árkhō which means “to rule.”
In a monarchy, there is one supreme leader who often rules by “divine right.” Monarchy — whether king, emperor or some other title–is one of the oldest forms of government, going back to prehistoric times when a chief was the tribal leader. The position of monarch is hereditary, usually passing from father to son. (Occasionally, if there were no sons, a daughter could become the ruling queen.)
Until the nineteenth century, an autocratic monarchy was the most common form of government—the sovereign had absolute power.
The modern monarchy is quite different from earlier ones. In some countries, the monarchy is only symbolic as in a crowned republic.
The most common form of modern monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, where the monarch retains only restricted power. The degree of power the monarch retains varies from country to country
- In some countries, the real authority resides in a constitution and in an elected body of representatives of the people. The monarch may reign, but not rule.
- In other countries, the constitutional part remains in theory, but the ruler has close to absolute power.
Today a person who rules with the power of an absolute monarch is often called a dictator.
The word oligarchy comes from the Greek word olígos which means “few.”
Oligarchy is government by the few for the few. Aristocracy and plutocracy are forms of oligarchy.
The term comes from the Greek word aristos which means “superior” and kratos which means “rule.”
This form of government is based upon the belief that the aristocrats–the wealthy nobility who inherit titled positions such as duke, earl, baron, etc.–are the most fit to rule. It was the favored form of government in Europe (working together with monarchy) until most of those countries became constitutional monarchies during the eighteenth century.
Great Britain, although it is a constitutional monarchy, retains some aristocracy due to the House of Lords. Traditionally, some of the members of the House of Lords were hereditary peers (members of the nobility), some came from the Church of England (archbishops and bishops), and some came from the judiciary. However, today the House of Lords has very limited powers, and it has been steadily becoming democratized with more and more members chosen via elections. There are currently proposals to make the House of Lords totally elected.
Today the term aristocracy is usually used as a pejorative. It refers to a country being governed primarily by rich people for the benefit of rich people.
The term plutocracy comes from the Greek word ploutos which means “wealth.”
Plutocracy is very similar to autocracy. It is government by a small group of the wealthiest citizens.
Plutocrats differ from aristocrats in that they need not come from noble or wealthy families. Nonetheless, they are the country’s mega-rich, and their wealth gives them power–power which they use to increase their own wealth.
A country does not designate itself a “plutocracy” in the same way it might designate itself a monarchy. The term is used as a pejorative when the moneyed class is effectively ruling the country no matter what the official form of government is.
The term also comes from Greek: Kakistos means “worst.” A kakistocracy is a government by the worst people in the country.
The term was first used in 1829 by the English author Thomas Love Peacock. It was meant to be the opposite of aristocracy. (Presumably, Peacock thought aristocracy was the best form of government.)
Kleptocracy is another pejorative term meaning a government of thieves. This word also comes from Greek: Klepto means “to steal.” This term, like kakistocracy, is a pejorative and not a name a country would bestow upon itself.
Theocracy is a form of government in which a particular religion (more correctly an individual or group of individuals who claim to speak for the religion’s deity) rules. The word theocracy comes from the Greek word theos which means “god.”
A theocracy can be a monarchy or an oligarchy or even a democracy (as the case in Israel). The laws of the country reflect the laws of the religion. People may be forced to observe the religious rituals.
Religion may be more or less supreme. In a monarchy or oligarchy, religious laws will be more prominent; in a democracy like Israel, the religious demands may be fewer and there will be more tolerance for non-observance.
The dictionary defines fascism as “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.”
In a fascist regime, a strong, authoritarian leader gains power and then uses the police force and army to maintain “law and order.” Sadly, the dictator often begins his political career and gains power because he is admiredby the people who expect him to make things better for them.
The prime examples of fascism are Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler in the years after WW I until the end of WW II. Other countries such as Spain, Japan, and Argentina have also had fascist regimes.
Today, too many people use the term fascist primarily as an insult to describe anyone whose political views they do not like—they apparently do not understand the actual meaning of the word.
Communism (from Latin communis which means “universal”) is the nominal system of government in Russia. (In actuality, Russia is a fascist-like dictatorship.)
Communism is the philosophical belief in a socioeconomic order based on common ownership of the means of production and the abolishment of social classes. In its pure form it is idealistic. No working class and capitalist class—everyone will give according to his ability and take according to his need.
It works great for a family unit and maybe even for small hunting-and-gathering tribes. It falls apart when a leader tries to impose it upon a whole nation. Human nature being what it is, people will cheat to maximize the benefits for themselves. The oligarchs in Russia are immensely wealthy.
Capitalism is not, strictly speaking, a form of government—it is a system of commerce—but it is included here to contrast with communism.
Capitalism is a better system than communism and is the one employed by most nations. Each person works to maximize his own benefit and in the process everyone benefits. However, there is no country which practices unfettered capitalism.
Human nature being what it is, greed distorts the system. The workers, because they have less power, get exploited. There must be regulations to keep some kind of balance between capitalists and labor.
The word is derived from the Greek word demos which means “the common people.” It has flaws, but it may be the best form of government humans can devise.
A line attributed to Winston Churchill sums it up: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”
The United States was founded as a democracy. (Technically, the United States is a “democratic republic”—a government in which the citizens elect representatives who rule for the people. Strict democracy works only in small groups; it is unwieldy to have the entire population vote on every single thing.)
Democracy is supposed to be a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously said in his Gettysburg Address. The problem with a democracy is that it is hard to meet those ideals.
A demagogue can sway the people to vote against their own interests by exploiting prejudice and ignorance to whip up the passions of the masses and to shut down reasoned deliberation. Benjamin Franklin warned against demagogues when he was asked what form of government the United States has. He replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”