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Purposes and Origins of Government

Major Theories of the Origins of Government

There are four major theories of how government originates: evolutionary, force, divine right, and social contract.

According to evolutionary theory, government originates from a family or clan-bound structure, which can explain the formation of the world's first political structures. These earliest and very loosely formed governments were the result of a shift from hunter-gatherer societies to more settled agricultural societies. As families joined to form clans and clans joined to form villages, the need for leaders and a central organizational structure developed. These leaders helped determine how to address still unfamiliar issues, such as water rights for crop irrigation and the distribution of other resources. They also provided an increased sense of safety and security for the society. In many early societies, these first states developed monarchies, with rule based on membership in a ruling family. In modern times, some governments continue to be led by a succession of members from the same family. For example, in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the king has been descended from the Āl Saʿūd family since 1744.

The force theory is the idea that government originates from taking control of the state by force and is often found in a dictatorship—a type of government characterized by one-person or one-party authoritarian rule. Historically, this has been achieved in some cases through forcible invasion or occupation when a more dominant people or state takes control of the political system of a less powerful people or state, imposing its governmental system on that group. New governments can also be formed by force during revolutions or coups within a country. A coup is the overthrow of an established government, and the resulting leader or dictator is most often a military figure. An example of the force theory occurred in Cuba in 1959, when revolutionary Fidel Castro and a small force of guerrilla soldiers defeated the national army and took control of the government. In some cases, governments created by force take on some characteristics of a monarchy, with government power handed down within the dictator's family. Examples are the Assad regime in Syria and the Kim regime in North Korea.

With the divine right theory, government originates with power vested in an individual by God or gods. Generally, monarchs lead governments of this type. This theory was followed in ancient times, including by the ancient Egyptians and Maya. The idea of divine right experienced a resurgence in western Europe in the 16th to the 18th centuries, when King James I of England, several French monarchs, and other rulers asserted that their authority came directly from God—and thus could not be challenged. Russian czars, such as Peter the Great, believed their autocratic rule was God-given, and they used their power to gain territory, wage war, and impose taxation on their subjects.

The social contract theory of government was the result of centuries of frustration with the unchecked power of monarchs. Under this theory, government is a kind of contract in which those in power have responsibility toward those they govern and the governed respect the power of the governing individuals. There are various versions of the social contract theory, ranging from an emphasis on maintaining a peaceful social order to a focus on using individual free will to determine what is best for the public good, or that which benefits all people in a society. Although the social contract theory has numerous variations, at its core is the idea that government is an agreement between those who govern and those who are governed. The founders of the United States drew heavily on social contract theory in the construction of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In doing so, they formed a democracy, which literally means "rule by the people."