The Attributes of Government: The Attributes that Define the Forms of Government and a List of Government Types
Different types of government can be said to be based on a number of attributes like power source, power structure, and economic system.
These attributes, or aspects, of government can help us to define the complex forms of government.
TIP: One good source for understanding government types is the CIA’s World Fact Book. Try comparing their descriptions to ours.
NOTE: Below I am translating the whole of my knowledge based off reading the past philosophers into a single theory of “the attributes of government.” There is no perfect agreed on governmental theory and there is no official and perfect list of governmental attributes (as far as I know). Feel free to comment with suggestions below.
An Introduction to the Forms of Government and Attributes of Government
Although one can look to Aristotle and Plato to categorize governments by their classical power source (in terms of “virtues” or in terms of “who rules”), to examine real-life governments properly, we must define and categorize other attributes (like whether the government is elective or not).
Below we describe the attributes that form the foundation of the different real and philosophical government types from the classical government types of Plato and Aristotle, to the real complex governments like that of the United States.
By understanding the governments this way one won’t need to memorize labels or old theories, but will instead be able to understand a government by its Constitution.
TIP: Marx and Mises both thought socioeconomics was at the core of the government types. Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes thought of the forms as being about “who rules” and “who votes on laws.” Plato and Montesquieu thought them to be about “the virtues of state and the spirit of the laws”. In practice, all these “attributes” affect a government’s type. Below we consider the many different social, political, ideological, and economic attributes of government that help define the real and philosophical forms of government. That said, starting with the classical foundation is important, so we’ll do that first.
TIP: This page focuses on the attributes of government, see a detailed explanation of the history of the forms of government from a philosophical standpoint or see social contract theory for more information.
Classical Forms of Government According to the Greeks (The Classical Power Sources)
Power source describes the basic form of government, that from which power is derived. Let’s start by discussing the classical power sources defined by the Greeks.
The basic classical forms of government are generally based on the question “who rules” (which roughly translates to who makes and votes on laws). Aristotle keeps this distinction simple, Plato adds some complexity. So, with that in mind, let’s start with Aristotle (even though he comes after Plato).
Aristotle’s Forms of Government
In Aristotle’s terms (the realist versions of the classical power source, based on “who rules”), the classical forms of government are:
- Monarchy (rule by one): A king or queen makes the laws.
- Aristocracy (rule by the few): An elite class votes on and make the laws.
- Democracy (rule by the many): Everyone votes on and makes the laws.
Simple as that. This is the basic realist three way split, that can be considered to have a “good” version and “bad” version (as discussed below). Aristotle, Hobbes, and Machiavelli generally agree on this foundation.
Here the United States would be an Aristocratic Democracy (or, in other terms, a Democracy rooted in an Aristocracy) because power is shared between branches of government and citizens.
We have a type of Monarchy with limited power and term limits, but executive orders aside they don’t make the laws. Here we can see that our nature is “mixed”.
Plato’s Forms of Government
In Plato’s Terms (the idealist versions of classical power source based on “virtues of state” are), the classical forms of government are:
- Monarchy and Aristocracy (rule by law and order, like ideal traditional “benevolent” kingdoms that aren’t tyrannical),
- Timocracy (rule by honor and duty, like a “benevolent” military; Sparta as an example),
- Oligarchy (rule by wealth and market-based-ethics, like a free-trading capitalist state),
- Democracy and Anarchy (rule by pure liberty and equality, like a free citizen), and
- Tyranny (rule by fear, like a despot).
These idealist terms are much more difficult than Aristotle’s realist terms. Here we can note that the more idealist thinkers like Plato and Montesquieu tend to favor these “virtue-based” descriptions that denote the “attributes” of a form (like liberty and equality, or honor and duty, etc).
If a real form of government shares attributes with any form, then it can be said to have “X form’s attributes”. For example, the United States has Aristocratic attributes of law, order, a separation of powers, and representatives, timocratic attributes in its military and executive agencies, oligarchical attributes in its capitalist system, and Democratic attributes in its voting practices and bill of rights.
The United States is, in other words, a mix of Plato’s “lawful” forms, each higher form meant to restrain the lower, and all together meant to ensure against Tyranny.
We call this ideal mix, a Polity or a Republic.
Polities and Republics
With the above in mind, Plato and Aristotle both defined the ideal mixed system as a “Polity” (or Kallipolis / Callipolis), or “Mixed-Republic” (or just “Republic”).
Here, although they differ on the pure types, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and most other thinkers worth their salt with a popular theory of government will generally agree that a mixed government is best.
The Polity, the most desirable form, is a “balanced” mixed-government (a mixed “Republic“) that draws from all the forms except tyranny (as its purpose is to avoid tyranny, corruption, and special interest).
TIP: Republic is a term used in broad and specific ways through history. Consider learning more about Republics. You can think of it as “a container to put political mixes in”, but it really denotes some degree of “popular, free-trading, lawful, aristocratic, and democratic government”.
The Correct and Deviant Forms
Although Plato and Aristotle present slightly different theories, according to Aristotle, and agreed on by most of the political philosophers directly or indirectly:
Each of the three classical forms of government has a “correct” form (which puts the people and law before special interests) and a “deviant” form (that puts special interests before a just law that respects “the Common Good” and “virtues of state”).
Here we can illustrate things in a few ways depending on the exact theories we use, below are two was to represent the government types in a table. The first way is rooted in Plato’s theory, the second is rooted in Machiavelli’s Aristotelian description of governments from his Livy.
Thus, putting Plato and Aristotle’s specific theories together, we can say The Basic Modern Forms of Government look something like this:
|Correct (lawful)||Deviant (corrupt)|
|One (or Very Few) Rulers||Monarchy (one lawful King) / Aristocracy (a few wise rulers; ideally “philosopher kings”)||Tyranny / Despotism (fear and power based; lawless)|
|Few Rulers||Timocracy (based on honor and duty like a virtuous military)||Oligarchy (rule by the wealthy)|
|Many Rulers||Democracy (pure liberty and equality; direct lawful rule of the people)||Anarchy (pure liberty and equality; no laws)|
Or, putting Machiavelli and Aristotle’s specific theories together (where we consider Monarchy and Aristocracy separate and don’t consider timocracy or consider it a type of aristocracy), we can say The Basic Modern Forms of Government look something like this:
|Correct (lawful)||Deviant (corrupt)|
|One (or Very Few) Rulers||Monarchy (one lawful King) /||Tyranny / Despotism (fear and power based; lawless)|
|Few Rulers||Aristocracy (a few wise rulers; ideally “philosopher kings”)||Oligarchy (rule by the wealthy)|
|Many Rulers||Democracy (pure liberty and equality; direct lawful rule of the people)||Anarchy (pure liberty and equality; no laws)|
Thus, for classical power source (who has power, in classical terms) we can say that monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are the basics in realist terms of “who rules”, and that the other “virtue based” power sources include timocracy, oligarchy, anarchy, and tyranny/despotism.
Each of these has a specific meaning, but the above table should give you the gist of how they fit together. See Plato’s five regimes for more details.
TIP: There are different ways to display the above data. Plato’s combining of terms, and his differences from Aristotle, makes a perfect table elusive. All illustrations of the forms are meant as useful models, not official gospel.
Who Rules? (Types of Government). Here is another take on the forms of government. There is more than one way to explain the forms, but we can always go back to Aristotle for simple answers. This chart, as is common, places representative democracies under “the many.” We place it under the few, since the many give power to the few, and the few rule with the consent of the many.
NOTES ON TYRANNY: Each form noted above can become corrupted when it acts out of special interest and not in-line with the General Will and just law. If any pure form or mixed form (in Aristotle’s terms, Plato’s terms, or other terms) becomes corrupt and lawless, it can be said to be “tyrannical”. It is the duty of all Republicans and Democrats to thwart tyrants, ideally by Democratic, Republican, and lawful means (lest the removal of a tyrant itself becomes ironically tyrannical); it is literally a major reason behind the creation of the United States.
“On the grounds that the law was desired to keep the king within bounds, not the king the law. And it is by virtue of the law that he is a king; for without it, he is a tyrant.” – George Buchanan 1579, on the tyranny of the one.
“You know the proverb, ‘the people is a monster of many heads.’ You are sensible, undoubtedly, of their great rashness and great inconstancy.” – Buchanan, expressing the Greeks distrust of mob rule; see Plato on how Oligarchy becomes Democracy, and Democracy becomes Tyranny (mob rule AKA the tyranny of the many; one should also be wary of the tyranny of the few, often known as special interests).
TIP: In general terms, Rome and Athens were mixed-Republics like most modern western powers. Athens erred on the side of Democracy; Rome was a Republic and then a Monarchy. Sparta also had a type of mixed-government rooted in a timocracy. With that in mind, one can consider that each higher form has aspects of a lower form, timocracy knows oligarchy and democracy, and one can consider that even the “pure forms” have some element of being mixed (for example, a Democracy may have a Monarch even if all citizens have direct voting). Given the complexity this creates, and given the fact that real life governments are complex, it makes sense to discuss each attribute and virtue as its own thing (as we do on this page).
Warning: What governments are and what they say they are are two different things. We care what a government says they are, but it is what they are in-action that describes them. For example, one could argue that the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea has a name that doesn’t match up with its form (it is for example, not Democratic).
What is Government? Government is the will-in-action of the people. It is the part of the state that acts on behalf of the people (ideally in accordance with “the General Will“; i.e. the common good, not the majority opinion). See a theory of government and a theory on the separation of powers. This can, metaphorically (excuse the metaphysics), be related back to the spheres of human understanding, where we can say “government is not the morality or logic of the people, but it is the ethics-in-action that affects the physical”. That is obviously all philosophy, but remember, the attributes and forms were essentially defined by political philosophers, so we aren’t far off course, just dipping our toes in idealism for a second in a side-note.
The Other Major Attributes of Government
The above primarily describes power source (a king, an aristocracy, a democracy; AKA who rules), not a power structure, economic system, or other key “attributes” that must be used to describe real in-action governments.
Below are more attributes that help define a government.
Attributes of the Forms of Government and Power Source
Keeping in mind the classical forms above, we can say that each government has attributes related to the classical forms, in terms of “where decision-making power is held“, “who elects the empowered“, and in terms of the more idealist concept of “virtues of state” (like “liberty and equality” for a Democracy, “law and order” for an aristocracy, “honor and duty” for a timocracy, and “fear” for despots and tyrants).
Here we can denote the attributes of positive “lawful” forms (based off the classical forms) as:
- Monarchistic Attributes like tradition, order, and the rule of one. The positive qualities of an enlightened Monarch.
- Aristocratic Attributes like law, order, separation of powers, representatives, and wise rulers chosen based on intellect and wisdom. The positive qualities of a political body like a Senate, House of Lords, or Supreme Court. Consider also “an intellectual aristocracy”, such as the ideal of philosopher kings (a mix between a technocracy and kritarchy).
- Timocratic Attributes like rank, honor, duty, and rulers chosen based on merit (positions are earned based on skill; a meritocracy). The positive qualities of military officers and executive agencies.
- Oligarchical Attributes like free-trade, incentive, and industrialization. The positive qualities of capitalists, workers, and employers in a free-market system.
- Democratic Attributes like liberty and equality. The positive qualities of a free citizen, from the peasant to the artist.
- And general Republican Attributes. Here it is any attributes that relate to combining the above forms, since a Republic is almost always rooted in aristocracy to some degree, a Republican is generally going to hold a mix of Democratic, Oligarchical, and Timocratic values, all tempered by core Aristocratic values. This can be confusing, but generally: If one holds mixed positive values, one can describe that as Republican (and then use the other terms as descriptors).
TIP: For an example, the U.S. is a Representative Democracy. We “Democratically” elect “Representatives” to make laws for our “Republic” in “Aristocratic” fashion. Here we are denoting the power source attributes Democracy, Aristocracy, and Republic, and the power sharing / power distribution attributes (described below) “representative” and “elected”. This is defined by another attribute, “constitutional”. Here you can see why it is better to think in terms of governmental attributes than to make a giant list of every possibility for one to memorize and cite.
TIP: States are usually considered Monarchies, Republics, or Democracies (the terms Oligarchy and Timocracy aren’t generally used, but consider, a corporatocracy is an oligarchy, and Mussolini’s Italy was “a fascist state” AKA a tyrannical timocracy, a “police state” (it was a corrupt meritocracy).
And we can denote the attributes of the negative “despotic” forms (based off the classical forms) as:
- Tyrannical Totalitarian Attributes like no law or order, and the rule of one. The negative qualities of a corrupted Despot like Pol Pot.
- Tyrannical One-Party State Attributes like a lack of law and order in the special interest of the corrupted aristocracy. The negative qualities of a political body like the NAZI Party.
- Tyrannical “Junta” Police State Attributes like rank, honor, duty, and rulers chosen based on merit (positions are earned based on skill; a meritocracy)… but in defense of vices and not virtues. The negative qualities of a fascist government.
- Tyrannical Plutocratic Attributes like price fixing and industrialization without care for workers or the environment. The negative qualities of capitalists and employers, such as those found in gangsterism, feudalism, and slavocracy (a type of wage slavery or chattel slavery).
- Anarchistic Attributes like liberty and equality…. but without the restraints found in the other forms. The negative qualities of being totally free and liberal, Mad Max style.
- And general Tyrannical and Despotic Attributes. This is the equivalent to being an anti-Republican, tyranny and despotism in general is just a mix of the negative forms. In realist terms, one almost always has a mixed government. If it is a good and lawful mix that respects the citizens, it is a Republic, if it is a bad and unlawful mix, it is tyranny.
TIP: Each tyrannical form is just a corruption of the lawful forms. Their structure is the same, but their power doesn’t come from consent. A slavocracy is an example of a tyrannical form. If laws are followed and the General Will is adhered to, then we can describe the form as “lawful”. Consider, a Despotic Tyrannical Totalitarian government ruled by one, and an absolute Enlightened and just Monarchy ruled by one have the same number of decision-makers (one, the Prince) and the same electors (none), yet they differ greatly. In other words, we generally are wise to consider “virtues of state”, even when discussing modern real-life governments. The other attributes below will help to illustrate real government types more clearly.
The Attribute of Power Structure and Power Distribution (or Power Sharing)
For Power structure (not source) there is:
- Separatism: Small decentralized power, no nation.
- Federalism: United under a strong or weak government within a nation. This can be a Confederacy, which typically has a weak central government, or a Federation, which usually has a strong central government; either with less, equal, or more power than states today. See a larger conversation on the types of Federalism.
- Unionism: Nations or States may form a union. This can lead to non-self-governing states but doesn’t denote a lack of sovereignty. The U.S. is a hybrid of Federalism and Unionism. A Federation of states may form a Union under a central government.
TIP: One can think of all power structure as a statement on Federalism. Federalism is like a range of “means between” separatism and unionism. Here we can be talking about how power sharing works between regions, or we can talk about how power sharing works between other entities (like branches of government). Since this is two different ideas, we’ll talk about how power sharing works between entities like branches of government in its own section.
The Attribute of Power Sharing Within Government
Branches of Government (including the executive) are commonly divided in these ways (i.e. a separation of powers):
- Bipartite: Two branches (typically executive and legislative)
- Tripartite: Three branches (typically executive, legislative, judicial)
- Unicameral: A Branch ruled by a single entity.
- Bicameral: A Branch divided into two parts.
- That language is typically used when referring to dividing a legislature.
TIP: Here we can be describing power sharing between branches, or within branches, or between other governing entities within a state. There is no rule that says we can only use a one, two, 0r three way split.
The Attributes of “Power Ideology” in Terms of Law and Culture: The Spirit of the Laws and Culture
A Government is either:
- or UnConstitutional
This is to say, it is either bound by an explicit social contract, or it is not.
The attributes of lawfulness start with a Federal Constitution, which typically also denotes a Bill of Rights like document, and then applies to state and regional constitutions and laws.
Here one should consider that a nation is not only bound by the letter of the law, which contains its spirit, a nation is also bound by culture.
The culture and law (along with a few other attributes noted below) reflect a nation’s “Power Ideology” (which as Montesquieu points out in his “Spirit of the Laws” should reinforce and ensure the power source; not work against it).
Different forms of government require that different “virtues of state” to be reflected by the letter of the law, spirit of the law, and culture.
VIRTUE in a republic is a most simple thing; it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge; a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state.
A love of the republic, in a democracy, is a love of the democracy; as the latter is that of equality.
IF the people are virtuous in an aristocracy, they enjoy very near the same happiness as in a popular government, and the state grows powerful. But, as a great share of virtue is very rare where men’s fortunes are so unequal, the laws must tend as much as possible to infuse a spirit of moderation, and endeavour to re-establish that equality which was necessarily removed by the constitution.
The spirit of moderation is what we call virtue in an aristocracy; it supplies the place of the spirit of equality in a popular state. – Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws
The Executive and Power Distribution
The “King-like” Figure, the Ruler, the Executive body (the executive attribute) can be:
- Presidential (with an elected or unelected Monarch-like figure), semi-presidential (a president exists along with a prime minister and a cabinet, with the latter two being responsible to the legislature of a state),
- Parliamentary (run by a legislative body, Congress is a type of parliament). Thus, we can make the one, few, many distinctions with rulers of any branch as well! I.e. the executive can be unicameral, bipartite, tripartite, etc.
- Or, “many headed“, pure anarchy or democracy.
TIP: Common descriptors of governments use the terms Presidential or Parliamentary. For example, one can have a Presidential Republic (like the U.S.), or a Parliamentary Monarchy (like the U.K.).
Attribute of Election and Power Distribution
Leaders are either (the attribute of election):
- Merit-based (earned)
- Despotic, when position is gained based on a power grab.
All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. Principalities are either hereditary, in which the family has been long established; or they are new… – The first line of Machiavelli’s the Prince
“… the [elected] governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII of Machiavelli’s Livy
The Legislative and Power Distribution
Power source and power sharing between branches has already been covered, but one should note that the legislative can be (as noted above):
- Bicameral (with a Senate and House for example)
And it can be:
- Citizen run, where citizens represent themselves (like in a pure Democracy).
- Representative, where elected, appointed, or hereditary leaders represent the people by creating and voting on laws.
- Despotic, where elected leaders don’t represent the people.
The Judicial and Power Distribution
The Judicial Branch uses the same logic as the legislative, here one should note that some Governments do not use all three branches (and a few use more), and some governments give some branches more “powers”.
One can also note that the higher and lower courts are equivalent to the multi-cameral nature of the House and Senate.
Voting and Power Distribution
Voting can be:
- Direct, where the people vote directly on laws.
- Advisory, where the people cast advisory votes, but don’t vote directly.
- Representative, where elected officials appoint positions, vote on positions, and make laws.
- Or, non-existent
In the United States we use a mix of direct and advisory voting on laws, but generally appoint representatives in a Republican/Aristocratic fashion.
TIP: The length of appointments should also be considered. Generally lifetime appointments are less Democratic than term limits, although the tone of that differs by position. Part of the idea of aristocracy is to have the wisdom to know what style works best for different parts of a system.
Economy and Socioeconomic Ideology
The government is also informed by stances on economics and social issues (socio-economic and economic attributes).
- For economics, for example, this can take the form of capitalism or socialism (including Communism). See social market vs. free market.
- The economy can be planned, free-market, or mixed-market.
- The state can tax in variety of different ways, focusing on tariffs or an income tax or a mix, exploiting its workers or its trading partners, or not.
- The economy can be free-trading, protectionist, mercantile, fair-trade, or mixed (having state-run monopolies or a pure free market).
- A nation can also be conservative, moderate, liberal, or progressive on any issue (including trade and military).
- The country can also be nativist, nationalist, nationless, or globalist.
- The country can be inclusive or exclusive in terms of race or class.
- In overly simple terms, a nation can be “left or right” on a wide range of issues meaning it is authoritative or not, idealistic or not, social or not, etc. See our page on left-right for a broader discussion on the breadth of this concept.
TIP: There are, from some perspectives, countless different attributes we can consider, and those attributes can change by era. In terms of socioeconomics, we can consider descriptors like Corporatocracy, “the Welfare State”, and Feudalism (and considering reality here in 2017 and the reality of history, these make a lot of sense to consider).
TIP: Generally the economic form is very important to state identity. Communist states are generally called “Communist States” or “Socialist Republics”.
Classes, Estates, and Human Rights
Government can also be defined by its position on classes, estates, and human rights.
- There can be class equality (no estates).
- Class mobility (fluid estates).
- Or class inequality (ridged estates).
The state can also ensure some amount of human rights or not, a just state will ensure basic human rights (“First Rights”), but a state needs to consider if it is going to offer “Second Rights” or not.
TIP: The first estate was generally the Church, thus we can also consider “theocratic” attributes. Does a state have freedom of religion or a state religion?
Attributes of Territory
States and Nations can also be:
- An Empire
- Imperial or not
- Occupied or not
- a Colony or not
- Colonial or not
There are other attributes that matter that we haven’t mentioned.
Any aspect of a state’s system or ideology (their civil religion) is an attribute.
Consider comparing our list to Wikipedia’s list.
NOTE: The reason we aren’t giving a “list of government types” is because we have essentially already noted all the real government types by listing the classical forms and attributes. A list can be constructed, and we may create a master-list, but complex lists are far less useful than understanding the attributes that create the list (and that is the point of this page). See our page on government types for a list and more philosophical background.
All That said, The Simple Version of How to Describe Real Governments
The above is probably enough to make your head spin, so lets make it simple again.
The most common descriptors of governments are:
- Elective or not.
- Constitutional or not.
- Presidential, Semi-Presidential, Parliamentary, or not.
- Republic or not.
- Monarchy or not.
- And Capitalist or not.
A Simple Example
So, to keep things simple, you can use just those terms to describe any system (interjecting the term “Despotic” in place of “or not” to taste).
“The United States is an elective, Federal, Constitutional, Presidential, Mixed-Republic, with a Mixed-Capitalist system” and “North Korea… is not”.
Or, “the United Kingdoms is an elective (in terms of parliament), Federal, Constitutional, Parliamentary Monarchy with a Mixed-Republic, and Mixed-Capitalist system” and “NAZI Germany was… a more despotic and tyrannical version of this”.
An Even More Simple
In even more simple terms, in most cases, one can just pair the classical form (or the economic form) with the term Republic, Democracy, or Monarchy.
The United States is a constitutional republic (a constitutional mixed-Republic with a Presidential and Republican system of governance), the former Soviet Union used to be a socialist republic (a constitutional Communist State), and the U.K. can be described as a Parliamentary Monarchy (constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of governance).
With that in mind, one is well-advised to use more descriptive terms and to denote the difference between what a government says they are and what they are in practice. For an example of why technically both the U.S. and North Korea can be described as Democratic Republics (the U.S. because it is, and North Korea because it says it is). To avoid semantic confusions, it helps to use more robust labels.
What Type of System is America?
In summation, let’s end with a brief answer to the question “What Type of System is America?”
The liberties, rights, and forms of our mixed government, under the amended Constitution, ensure the principles of republicanism, democracy, and mixed governments. They also ensure factions, which manifest as political parties and interest groups.
These sub-systems include Judicial Krytocracy, the Executive Monarchy, Timocracy, the Legislative Aristocracy, the private market Oligarchs.
They include the individualist who builds a company or retreats to a farm in near anarchist spirit, the collectivist who heads a Union, the mixed-market mash-up of Capitalism and Socialism found in a west coast company, etc.
It is a system that is partially the Virginia plan, and partially just an advent of liberty.
Either way, The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic; with Strong Democratic values. It is a federation of states with a Representative Democracy, ensured by a constitution, which values both the virtues of democracy and the virtues of republicanism.
Thus, in America, we experience nearly every form of government at once, good and bad, but such is the vice and virtue of the Federal Republic with Democratic values. See “why America’s founders picked a Republic.”