Designing a single isolated political entity isn't too difficult. Just pick a size, government type, invent a few colorful characters and you've got a good start. However, no government just appears, fully formed. Governments grow and evolve just like living things. For richer worlds, with longer histories and longer evolutions, how do you keep the political history plausible?

For example, skipping from a small tribal government to a fully fledged republic isn't believable but going from a tyranny to a primitive republic is possible.

What principles can I apply to the political evolution of the governments of my world to increase its plausibility? Are there any common patterns of which types of governments follow other governments and why they changed that way? As much as possible, discussions of philosophy and culture are out of scope (because it's so easy for this discussion to just explode in scope.)

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    $\begingroup$ Have you already heard of the path dependency theory? choices made early in the history of a state will impact the available choices later. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Vincent, I'm very familiar with that idea but haven't heard it called by that name. I'm familiar with chaotic systems where a system is very sensitive to initial conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ Europa Universalis (a simulation/grand strategy game targeting mainly the European middle-ages and renaissance) has a pretty detailed and believable system of government transitions - look at the maps at paradoxian.org/eu3wiki/Forms_of_Government. It's not a fixed ruleset, but it describes the transitions we've actually historically seen, as well as some reasonable limits of centralization/decentralization etc. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 11:44

6 Answers 6


I think the key is complexity. While the progression from simple to complex societies is not linear (we get Romes, and we get dark ages), we can see political beginnings when the size of tribal groups exceeded the size of a typical group of apes, and who knows what a society that spans our solar system looks like politically.

Political systems (any of the many -isms) are under-pinned by technology. Feudalism was a practical scheme for an iron age agricultural society. It wasn't suitable for society dominated by cities. Capitalism arguably required the printing press.

Any political system that persists has to be resilient and has to resist 'experimentation' and change. Consequently transitions between different systems (like the Victorian capitalism of the 19th century and the welfare-capitalism of the later 20th) tend to be punctuated by conflict.

As you suggest systems can with difficult progress from the less complex to the more complex, but it's much easier to go from complex to less complex (collapse).

Basically, the more populous the nation/civilisation the more complex the political system, even if its despotic. And since borders are permeable, in terms of population you have to include a fair portion of the population of bordering nations.

I also think that the more energy the civilisation uses, the more complex its society. Energy use enable complexity and in general, all energy usage will translate into complexity.

Lastly, which is more complex, centralised or decentralised systems? Probably the former. Whether you get a centralised or decentralised polity probably depends on the rate of change of circumstances like environment, technology etc. Rapid rates of change will favour decentralised systems, slow rates of change will likely make more centralised and highly connected organisations more efficient in the long run.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: "Feudalism was a practical scheme for an iron age agricultural society": Is this a hypothetical statement, or are there any examples of Iron Age societies that practiced feudalism? (In the cases I'm most familiar with, feudalism didn't develop until later -- sometimes much later.) $\endgroup$
    – ruakh
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ An example of 'iron age' feudalism would be under the Zhou Dyntasy of china (1100BC classifies as Iron Age) see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism_in_China $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ @JustAnotherDotNetDev Iron age wasn't something global - in China, it's considered to span about 600 BC - 200 BC, long after 1100 BC. It still works as an argument against ruakh's statement, though - Feudalism in China started long before the iron age, and persisted well to the end (~200 BC). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 11:36

There are so many different political histories out there that it's tough to use any one of them as a canonical example. As an interesting one, take the entity that is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:

  1. Pre-43 A.D.: Prehistoric Britain. Various tribal groups roam the British isles. Some Celtic peoples gradually take over from previous Britons.
  2. 43 A.D. - ~409 A.D.: Roman Britain. The Romans do what they do best and conquer parts of the southern England and Wales. Governors are the official rulers (in the eyes of the Romans), but they work with tribal leaders (to some extent) to integrate them into Roman British society. Land is further subdivided into colonies and municipalities. This southern Britain is part of the Roman Empire. In the north, though (e.g. Scotland), other tribes continue to rule, notably the Caledonians.
  3. ~409 A.D. - 1066 A.D.: Early Middle Ages. The Saxons and the Angles come and settle in Britain, forming small kingdoms.
  4. 1066 A.D. - 1215 A.D.: Late Middle Ages. William the Conqueror wins the Battle of Hastings in 1066, beginning the Norman rule of Britain. Kingdoms grow larger, and there is more unity.
  5. 1215 A.D. - 17th century A.D.: The Magna Carta is signed in 215, giving more power to the nobility from the King. Lower-level power still rests in their hands; feudal society still exists. The monarchy remains. Parliament, established in some form under William the Conqueror, has some authority.
  6. 15th century A.D. - 19th century A.D.: The British Empire begins to go through its proto-imperial stages and grows until it becomes a proper empire.
  7. 17the century A.D.: The English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution more firmly establish the power of Parliament.
  8. 1707 A.D.: The Treaty of Union is signed, combining the Kingdom of England (England + Wales) with the Kingdom of Scotland. There is more peace between the two kingdoms; past history, including the Wars of Scottish Independence, had led to enmity between the two entities.
  9. 1800 A.D: The Act of Union unites Ireland with the Kingdom of Great Britain. This might be considered the first formal union between the two entities.
  10. 1922 A.D.: The Republic of Ireland breaks free and gains independence.
  11. 20th century A.D: The British Empire is finally totally dissolved.

During this 2000-odd year history of Britain, the land went from independent to a colony/province to small independent kingdoms to larger kingdoms to having a parliament in addition to the monarchy to an empire and back to a smaller state, with a parliament and a monarchy. It went through these numerous stages over a long period of time, and, quite frankly, it is still changing.

So, what's the takeaway model for a nation? Here's my guess:

  1. Small, tribal structure (Prehistoric Britain). It is difficult to think of the land as a unified entity, because the technology to make it one doesn't exist. It will take outside forces to change that.
  2. Greater unification. This will happen if the state is conquered by an empire (Roman Britain) or is taken over be a powerful internal kingdom, or outside kingdom (William the Conqueror).
  3. Democratic rights. People will eventually want representation, whether in the form of a democracy or a republic (Magna Carta $\to$ Glorious Revolution).
  4. Empire. A country will rise to become a major global power in the vast majority of cases (British Empire).
  5. Post-empire. Who knows? The United Kingdom still has the Parliament + monarchy system in place, although the monarch has lost most of his/her power (similar to the last of the Japanese emperors, if I remember correctly). There will generally be a loss of international territory, and a government focused inward.
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    $\begingroup$ Britain seems like a great example. Historically, post-empire has almost always been a "dissolution" toward a type of equilibrium, with individual states gaining full control over themselves. Then they're free to be swallowed by a new empire or attempt to conquer and build their own until economic complexity and globalization make territorial expansion yield fewer gains than stability. $\endgroup$
    – Avernium
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 19:15

Modern European states may not be the only model. Almost all of Europe was under the control of monarchies during the Middle ages, so you might assume that is a necessary path.

Let us recall the ancient societies such as Athens and other Greek states, as well as Rome.

Those societies did mostly have kings at the earliest times, but those kings had much less power than a medieval monarch. To generalize grossly, they tended to be strong tribal leaders, much as in the Germanic tribes. The Greeks had very strong ideas regarding "freedom" and differentiating themselves from "eastern despotisms".

You might argue that the Roman king had a great real of power. Equally, Brutus successfully removed the monarchy precisely because of the abuse of power and the existence of a sufficiently educated and powerful class to replace it with a republic.

The ancient republics did differ considerably from modern states; in particular they had limited suffrage: no slaves or women for a start. But what they did have was a constitution, the rule of law and a court system rather than judgement by despot.

The Roman Republic did of course fall to and become the Imperium, and take the rest of Europe with it.

Suppose that the Roman Republic had not been so successful in conquest, or failed as a state completely.

Then the various political models in Europe would have had a very different path, and it is not inconceivable that there might have been continuity from the ancient republics to modern democracies.

What constraints are there on forming modern democracies? Sounds like a complex question in itself. As a start, I'd suggest that you need a certain level of literacy and therefore wealth before full suffrage becomes viable.

  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call the infighting feudal states of the Middle Ages centralized.. maybe that is nitpicking but your statement doesn't really apply to much of Europe during the middle ages. Vassalage by definition is a decentralized approach to rule. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JustAnotherDotNetDev - Fair 'nuff. I admit to eliding thinking regarding the end point of the monarchies (E.g. Louis XIV ) prior to their removal. Will remove the offending word. $\endgroup$
    – Keith
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 6:46

Political structures are emergent in the sense that they tend to mirror and reinforce cultural and social organizations in society, and survive a winnowing process between various organizational forms, with the "best" ones surviving.

China, for example, had followed a Confucianist code for @ 2000 years, and today's Communist Party government would be recognizable to earlier Imperial governments in terms of general form (government by meritocracy and bureaucracy), if not in specific content. Western Democracies have followed a much more chaotic developmental path, and various events have changed the forms in many instances. France, for example is a much more centralized state due to the long period of civil wars ending when Louis XIV (The Sun King) was able to assert himself and centralize power in the court, suppressing any possible social or political organization which might challenge Royal power. England, on the other hand, went the other way with a relatively constrained monarchy after the end of the English Civil Wars and the supremacy of Parliament. Germany, being assembled from a collection of bickering States, adopted a much more Federal structure.

Other societies have different culture and histories, which define their political systems and development. Russia is far different from the European nations because of her different history and society (the influence of things like the Orthodox Church, invasions from both the East and West due to open land frontiers and the vast spaces of Russia all play a part).

A good author to read is Robert D Kaplan (http://robertdkaplan.com). Many of his books seem to be travel books on the surface, but he is a keen observer and his vision is "History is Geography", in the sense that areas and nations with defendable frontiers can maintain civilizations and cultures over extended periods of time, while more open areas are the cockpits of conflict as civilizational forces can "flow" across them and come in conflict with other civilizations. Areas broken by difficult terrain are essentially ungovernable, since authorities cannot project their writ or power across the terrain.

In terms of political structures evolving, England is a good place to start as well. England has essentially been an island fortress against Europe for over 1000 years, and English Kings and Parliaments have been developing systems to ensure the Treasury is capable of supplying enough "coin" to ensure the defense of the realm. (A good author to follow this evolution is Naill Ferguson, particularly "The Ascent of Money"). English structures of taxation, banking, money and so on were driven by the need to be able to raise more and more money to fight against European rivals and prevent anyone from being able to cross the channel. Monarchs as different as Henry V, Elizabeth I and George III wrestled with this, as well as Prime Ministers from Pitt to Churchill.

So for a fictional nation, look at the boundaries (can there be a stable state, or will it be constantly invaded?), the culture, the long term external challenges the nation faces (England's challenges are the same today as they were in the time of Henry V, just different actors across the channel these days), and perhaps any long term internal challenges (a nation like Japan with limited farmland and natural resources will evolve a different culture, society and institutions than a rich, wide open nation like America).


One thing to consider for world building I think is poor situations lead to more extremist parties becoming popular or existing dictators becoming unpopular. Examples include, Russia, Germany where food shortages and a miserable outcome from a disastrous war laid the ground for both Stalin and Hitler. Granted it wasn't those things alone but the turmoil created in those situations increases. You only have to look at Greece to see how more extreme governments and views can become popular. It is a situation that could have potentially mirrored Germany's hyper inflation or Russia's post ruble collapse. It still could and may have already laid the ground for more extreme political viewpoints.


You possibly got it the wrong way. Governments, like individuals members of a species do not really evolve. It's called Social Darwinism. Some might think that the UK is the normal path to follow and do not understand why countries like Iraq failed miserably when it comes to democratization. Because democratization is not that natural. They forgot the long struggles the French, British and other democracies have faced to become what they are now.

The central reason why the states that we have today are what they are is because other states have failed. The nation-state is superior.

Now, to get back to the heart of the question, there is one theory by Charles Tilly that I would like to talk about. I think the name of the book is Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990. but I've never read it myself. I've read a book that detailed the theory of Tilly using real data to see if the theory was holding the line. And it did pretty well. The name of the book is (in French only) Les cycles de Mars by Michel Fortman. You might already have heard this statement: "War Made the State and the State Made War". Well that is a good summary of the theory.

A longer explanation: the most important function of states had been war and security issues. The providential state is something relatively new. Most states before 1930-1940 spent most of their revenues waging war, building fortifications, buying military supplies, etc. War cost a lot of money to the state and those that cannot pay as much are doomed to fail. Of course, I know that some states like Prussia during the Renaissance managed to win over more powerful rivals but this is one of the exceptions.

The state that will survive is the one that will be able to collect more taxes that the other. Thus, he will have more money to wage war and a greater chance of success. During the Renaissance, many states were decentralized. All the small lords had a lot of power and got the keep most of the money. The king had only a small fraction of the kingdom revenue. This is very problematic in some cases because the small lords might waste a lot of this money. If the king had that money, he would conquer the world...

If you ever player Europa Universalis you probably know that France is called the Great blue blob. It's because France was able to centralize more than say the German states nearby where it was almost total chaos (politically speaking). Not only France controlled a large territory but the king had a much larger share of the kingdom's wealth. That allowed France to wage many conflicts often opposed by coalitions of several European countries.

We can conclude that the absolutist monarchy is superior to feudality because it's more centralized and is able to collect more taxes to wage war.

Authors also concluded that democracy was superior to other form of government because they can set higher taxes without upsetting the people. In France during l'Ancient Régime, people complained about inequalities and were reluctant to pay taxes. They were right. They were overly taxed compared to the nobility and clergy members that paid almost nothing. Getting rid of the aristocracy meant no more privileged for them and usually, lower taxes for the poor but more taxes overall since it's more equally distributed.

So, in a democracy, people are generally willing to pay higher taxes because they have a say in the government. It's the same principle as "No taxation without representation". If the government listen to you, you will accept higher taxes.

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    $\begingroup$ Your final point about why the aristocracy was eliminated does not bode well for today's super-rich who amass fantastic wealth for themselves without paying much in taxes (compared to their wealth). I wonder if it will be pitchforks and torches for them? $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Green Communism is the last step, comrade. There was a time when our societies were more equalitarian. Here (not in the answer), I'm referring to The Glorious Thirty. Since then, the inequalities have risen in most developed countries. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ press.princeton.edu/titles/8664.html a very good read but maybe it's biased toward the democrats $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ Picketty's "Capitalism in the 20th Century" is terribly insightful about the degree of income inequality. The 1940's and 1950's were the lowest ratios they've been in a long time. Likewise, those were the golden years for many people. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ well yeah, it's kind of pro-democrat. Republican's have been pro-wealthy, pro-big business for a long time. Anything biased for Republicans will advocate supply-side economics. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:44

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