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Purposes and Origins of Government



Every state—a term often used interchangeably with country—has a government, a population, a territory, and the sovereignty to act independently. Governments establish laws, maintain order, provide protection from external threats, and care for their people. In a democratic system, one of the key principles is the rule of law, which ensures that no person is above the law. Traditional political ideologies can be placed along a spectrum based on, on one side, relative emphasis on governmental control and equality and, on the other side, limited government, acceptance of inequalities, and individual freedom. In reality, a mix of factors can produce attitudes on sociocultural issues reflecting positions on both sides of the traditional political ideological spectrum. Democracies can either be direct—meaning the people themselves make laws and policy—or indirect—meaning that they elect representatives to make laws. In a liberal democracy, respect for the rule of law means preventing the tyranny of the majority by respecting minority rights.

At A Glance

  • Every state, or distinct political entity, has a government, a population, a territory, and sovereignty.
  • There are four major theories of how government originates: evolutionary, force, divine right, and social contract.
  • All governments have the purposes of establishing laws, providing order and security, protecting their people from external threats, and providing for the general welfare.
  • While all governments enact laws, a democracy embraces the principle of the rule of law, which ensures that both the government and the people operate under the same set of laws, which both protect and limit them. By this principle, no person in the state is above the law.
  • A government is responsible for protecting its people from harm, though the goal of providing order and security can take different forms in a dictatorship, where the focus is more on maintaining the regime, and in a democracy, where the focus is on ensuring safety and citizens' rights.
  • Governments are responsible for preventing attacks on their people from persons or groups outside their borders.
  • Governments provide a variety of services to promote the general welfare of their people, though the nature and extent of these programs varies greatly depending on the values of the society.
  • Traditionally, political ideology was seen on a spectrum from the left—favoring strong government and social and economic equality—to the right—favoring limited government, accepting social inequalities, and stressing individual freedom. The extremes of communism (left) and fascism (right) form authoritarian governments. Democracies generally occupy the center.
  • Because of a complex mix of factors influencing attitudes on sociocultural attitudes, people's views on social issues can reflect positions from both sides of the traditional political ideological spectrum.
  • In a direct democracy, citizens themselves make the laws and govern. Though that system is nearly impossible to implement in modern democracies of large size and population, citizens in some democracies have the power to exercise a direct voice by using such tools as referendum and initiative.
  • In a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives to create laws and govern for them, though some government officials may gain office through appointments.
  • Although democratic forms of government embrace majority rule as the decision-making principle, they also work to protect the rights of minorities.