Basic Forms of Government

An Explanation and List of Types of Governments

An Explanation of Classical and Modern Types of Governments: Philosophical and Real

We explain and list the types of governments. We cover the basic classical forms of government, the many types of governments that can be derived from the classical forms, and the actual forms of governments in practice.

This page seeks to offer a philosophical foundation for the government types, but also notes the real government types we find here in the 2020s (See our page on the attributes that create the government types in-action).

So for example, we will discus Plato’s Five Regimes, but also point to the CIA World Fact Book on Government types.

First we will offer “a philosophical list of government types,” then “a realist list of government types,” then we’ll go on to discuss the many complex forms that exist in practice (many nations, like the US, have “mixed” governments ).

In doing this the goal will be not only to give you a list of government types (common), but to give you an understanding of the foundation from which the list of government types comes so you can understand what these terms mean and why they are useful in describing governments in theory and in practice (uncommon).

TIP: Most of the theory and real systems line up in terms of core concepts, but some philosophers have conflicting theories. Keep that in mind as you read. Not every definition of democracy is going to be the same, and even modern definitions of democracy depend on qualifiers to accurately describe a specific type of democracy implemented in practice in real governments. Remember, real systems are real, while terms used to describe systems are semantical.

An Overview of the Forms of Government

Before getting to the details, here are the basic types/forms of government as defined by the Greeks. Most of the real governments we’ll discuss are variations of these types, so this is important to know.

The Philosophical Foundation of the Government Types of Aristotle and Plato

In Aristotle’s terms (the realist versions of the classical power source, based on “who rules” i.e. “who makes the laws”), 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.

In Plato’s Terms (the idealist versions of classical power source based on “virtues of state” are), the classical forms of government are:

  1. Monarchy and Aristocracy (rule by law and order, like ideal traditional “benevolent” kingdoms that aren’t tyrannical),
  2. Timocracy (rule by honor and duty, like a “benevolent” military; Sparta as an example),
  3. Oligarchy (rule by wealth and market-based-ethics, like a free-trading capitalist state),
  4. Democracy and Anarchy (rule by pure liberty and equality, like a free citizen), and
  5. Tyranny (rule by fear, like a despot).

“The four governments of which I spoke, so far as they have distinct names, are, first, those of Crete [monarchy] and Sparta [timocracy], which are generally applauded; what is termed oligarchy comes next; this is not equally approved, and is a form of government which teems with evils: thirdly, democracy, which naturally follows oligarchy, although very different: and lastly comes tyranny, great and famous, which differs from them all, and is the fourth and worst disorder of a State”. – Plato’s Republic Book VIII

The Republic

Plato called a mixed government a Republic In his book… the Republic.

A Mixed-Republic (a lawful mix of  aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy organized in a way to best suit the people and to defend the state against tyranny) is the ideal of Plato’s book, and in practice many philosophers and politicians consider this type of mixed government an ideal as well.

A Republic is essentially Plato’s “6th” form.

TIP: If you want to keep it simple, all governments are either Republics (popular governments) or Principalities (government ruled by monarchs), like Machiavelli says. If you want to get a little more complex, the theory of the Greeks works well. If you want to dive into every detail, considering economic systems, federalism, and bicameral legislatures with indirect voting, etc, then you’ll need to learn about the attributes of government and should check our realist list below.

TIP: According to the CIA World Fact Book 2004 (but not the most recent Fact Book). Republic – a representative democracy in which the people’s elected deputies (representatives), not the people themselves, vote on legislation. In America our Republic is Federal, a union of federal republics under one republican government.[1]

The Realist Types of Governments Here in the 2020s According to the CIA Fact Book

To provide a juxtaposition to the Greeks, let’s look a the government types here in the 2020s.

One good source for understanding government types is the CIA’s World Fact Book (I’m using a mix of the 2004 and 2020 versions below). Try comparing their descriptions to ours, for your convenience I have done this for you below (our descriptions are in red, and are meant to give you an idea of how one might describe real governments using classical terms, the rest is CIA definitions meant to give you exact accepted definitions of the modern day that describe real nations’ governments).

TIP: Every real government is defined by not only a basic type, but a list of attributes like “Presidential,” “Ecclesiastical” (theological), and “Federal” (i.e. see our attributes list for more details), although for the purposes of this page, I’ve included some major attributes in this list to keep in-line with the definitions in the CIA Fact book.

  • Absolute monarchy – a form of government where the monarch rules unhindered, i.e., without any laws, constitution, or legally organized opposition. A type of monarchy.
  • Anarchy – a condition of lawlessness or political disorder brought about by the absence of governmental authority. Anarchy.
  • Authoritarian – a form of government in which state authority is imposed onto many aspects of citizens’ lives. A type of tyranny.
  • Communist – a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single – often authoritarian – party holds power; state controls are imposed with the elimination of private ownership of property or capital while claiming to make progress toward a higher social order in which all goods are equally shared by the people (i.e., a classless society).  A type of timocracy/oligarchy based on an economic system; some examples in history can be said to be more monarchical.
  • Confederacy (Confederation) – a union by compact or treaty between states, provinces, or territories, that creates a central government with limited powers; the constituent entities retain supreme authority over all matters except those delegated to the central government. A type of Republic.
  • Commonwealth – a nation, state, or other political entity founded on law and united by a compact of the people for the common good. A type of Republic.
  • Constitutional democracy – a form of government in which the sovereign power of the people is spelled out in a governing constitution. A type of democracy (generally in a Republic).
  • Constitutional monarchy – a system of government in which a monarch is guided by a constitution whereby his/her rights, duties, and responsibilities are spelled out in written law or by custom. A Republic with a Monarch.
  • Democracy – a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but which is usually exercised indirectly through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed. A type of democracy (not generally a pure direct democracy, which is what Plato’s democracy implies; there are many sub-types of democracy in practice and in theory).
  • Democratic republic – a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them. A democratically minded republic.
  • Dictatorship – a form of government in which a ruler or small clique wield absolute power (not restricted by a constitution or laws). A type of tyrannical monarchy.
  • Ecclesiastical – a government administrated by a church. A type of monarchy.
  • Emirate – similar to a monarchy or sultanate, but a government in which the supreme power is in the hands of an emir (the ruler of a Muslim state); the emir may be an absolute overlord or a sovereign with constitutionally limited authority. A type of Monarchy.
  • Federal (Federation) – a form of government in which sovereign power is formally divided – usually by means of a constitution – between a central authority and a number of constituent regions (states, colonies, or provinces) so that each region retains some management of its internal affairs; differs from a confederacy in that the central government exerts influence directly upon both individuals as well as upon the regional units. A type of Republic with more elements of aristocracy and monarchy than a confederation.
  • Federal republic – a state in which the powers of the central government are restricted and in which the component parts (states, colonies, or provinces) retain a degree of self-government; ultimate sovereign power rests with the voters who chose their governmental representatives. A type of large Republic.
  • Islamic republic – a particular form of government adopted by some Muslim states; although such a state is, in theory, a theocracy, it remains a republic, but its laws are required to be compatible with the laws of Islam. A type of theological Republic.
  • Maoism – the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism developed in China by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), which states that a continuous revolution is necessary if the leaders of a communist state are to keep in touch with the people. A mix of timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy (on-paper).
  • Marxism – the political, economic, and social principles espoused by 19th century economist Karl Marx; he viewed the struggle of workers as a progression of historical forces that would proceed from a class struggle of the proletariat (workers) exploited by capitalists (business owners), to a socialist”dictatorship of the proletariat,” to, finally, a classless society – Communism. A mix of timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy (on-paper).
  • Marxism-Leninism – an expanded form of communism developed by Lenin from doctrines of Karl Marx; Lenin saw imperialism as the final stage of capitalism and shifted the focus of workers’ struggle from developed to underdeveloped countries. A mix of timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy (on-paper).
  • Monarchy – a government in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of a monarch who reigns over a state or territory, usually for life and by hereditary right; the monarch may be either a sole absolute ruler or a sovereign – such as a king, queen, or prince – with constitutionally limited authority. A monarchy; obviously.
  • Oligarchy – a government in which control is exercised by a small group of individuals whose authority generally is based on wealth or power. An oligarchy; again, obviously.
  • Parliamentary democracy – a political system in which the legislature (parliament) selects the government – a prime minister, premier, or chancellor along with the cabinet ministers – according to party strength as expressed in elections; by this system, the government acquires a dual responsibility: to the people as well as to the parliament. A democratically minded republic.
  • Parliamentary government (Cabinet-Parliamentary government) – a government in which members of an executive branch (the cabinet and its leader – a prime minister, premier, or chancellor) are nominated to their positions by a legislature or parliament, and are directly responsible to it; this type of government can be dissolved at will by the parliament (legislature) by means of a no confidence vote or the leader of the cabinet may dissolve the parliament if it can no longer function. A aristocratic and republican monarchy.
  • Parliamentary monarchy – a state headed by a monarch who is not actively involved in policy formation or implementation (i.e., the exercise of sovereign powers by a monarch in a ceremonial capacity); true governmental leadership is carried out by a cabinet and its head – a prime minister, premier, or chancellor – who are drawn from a legislature (parliament). A democratic and republican monarchy.
  • Presidential – a system of government where the executive branch exists separately from a legislature (to which it is generally not accountable). A democratic take on aristocracy and monarchy.
  • Republic – a representative democracy in which the people’s elected deputies (representatives), not the people themselves, vote on legislation. A republic.
  • Socialist – a government in which the means of planning, producing, and distributing goods is controlled by a central government that theoretically seeks a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor; in actuality, most socialist governments have ended up being no more than dictatorships over workers by a ruling elite. A mix of timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy (on-paper).
  • Sultanate – similar to a monarchy, but a government in which the supreme power is in the hands of a sultan (the head of a Muslim state); the sultan may be an absolute ruler or a sovereign with constitutionally limited authority. A monarchy.
  • Theocracy – a form of government in which a Deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, but the Deity’s laws are interpreted by ecclesiastical authorities (bishops, mullahs, etc.); a government subject to religious authority. A religious timocracy.
  • Totalitarian – a government that seeks to subordinate the individual to the state by controlling not only all political and economic matters, but also the attitudes, values, and beliefs of its population. Tyranny.

Learning More About the Governments and Discussing Philosophy

All the above to say, the philosophical government types are arguably all we need to understand to understand the real government types, as so long as we remember things like “a timocracy is like a military state, oligarchy speaks to a state based on an economic system, governments in practice are often mixed, and any government type can become tyrannical (this helps use to understand why in the socialism example  the explanation of the government type using classical forms depended on how the rulers implemented socialism in practice).

The above might be explained by a simple variation of Plato’s table that looks something like this,

IMPORTANT: This table below is my own theory extracted from Plato’s work (there is no one way to illustrate the classical types; not even Aristotle and Plato fully agreed, see a discussion on what I call “the types of tyranny“).

Plato’s Five Regimes Expanded Correct (lawful; Ruled in Line With the General Will) Deviant (Special Interest Before the General Will)
One Ruler or Very Few Rulers Monarchy /Aristocracy (intellect and wisdom based) Despotic Tyranny (fear based)
Few Rulers; the Ideal Polity The Polity (a Mixed Republic the draws from the “correct” forms to protect against tyranny). NA
Few Rulers; a Military State Timocracy (honor and merit based) Tyrannical Timocracy (military state gangsterism; like a despotic Junta)
Few Rulers; a Capitalist State Oligarchy (wealth based) Tyrannical Oligarchy (greed based; a Plutocracy)
Many Rulers Democracy (pure liberty and equality based) Anarchy (pure liberty and equality based)

With that covered, and to that point, in my opinion the best way to understand the governments is to put aside field guides and take a deep look at the philosophies of government. This however can create tables like the one above, which are a theory and not an agreed on fact.

To avoid mixing theory and fact too much, I’ve moved the rest of this discussion to another page.

With that in mind, either go to part 2 of our types of governments page to learn about government types from philosophical lens, or go to our attributes page to learn about the attributes that create real complex government types. 😉

Who Rules? (Types of Government). A take on the forms of government. There is more than one way to explain the forms, but we can always revert to Aristotle and Hobbes 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). Likewise, they call anarchy “no one,” this is mostly semantics. I prefer the table we present, but this video is otherwise good.

Citations

  1. CIA World Fact Book


"Types of Governments" is tagged with: American Politics, Cooperation, Equality, Ethics, Liberty, Morality, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Systems, Types of Governments

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david H on

one flaw all governments type are socialist except maybe anarchy so it not a government type