The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A government is an organization that has the power to make and enforce laws for a certain territory. There are several definitions on what exactly constitutes a government. In its broadest sense, "govern" means the power to administrate, whether over an area of land, a set group of people, or an association.



One approach is to define government as the dominant 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 legitimate use of violence within its territory. This view has been taken by the political economist Max Weber and subsequent political philosophers. The exact meaning of this depends on what we mean 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 (uncountable) 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 British 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). The French use of the word gouvernement covers both meanings, whereas Canadian French also 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

Various forms of government have been implemented or proposed. 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, though the head of state generally has great latitude in appointing a new one.


Main article: government operations

Governments concern themselves with overseeing and administering many areas of human activity, such as economics, education, health, science, 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 infrastructure for justice, administration, transport, social welfare etc., claiming support of deities, providing benefits to influential groups, holding elections for important posts within the state, limiting the power of the state through laws and constitutions 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 article: 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 GDP.

See also

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