This Query is part of the Worldbuilding Resources Article.

One problem facing worldbuilders is the wide range of possible, hypothetical governments: robot-overlord, zealous AI, mages, vampires, an so on. Aristotle among others, came with a typology to classify the governments of his time based on certain criteria. I find his classification flawed and too narrow to include all the possibilities: I don't agree with his definition of what is a good/bad government because it depend too much on other factors, like who is the ruler.

What criteria would be necessary to define the important traits of any government?

What I'm looking for is a process to create believable governments or ideally a typology to classify them based on certain criteria.

What criteria should we use to make a coherent model?

Criteria of Aristotle

  • How many people are in power?: one, few, many
  • Aim for? the common good, the good of a minority

Here's what the classification look like, taken from Wikipedia:


Some criteria

that I've found but the whole is not coherent:

  • Who hold the power(s)?
  • How many are they?: one (absolute monarchy, totalitarian state), few (aristocracy, oligarchy), many (democracy) all/none (anarchy)
  • Are the powers concentrated or separated? Democracies normally have the 3 powers listed below but non-democratic states tend to concentrate the powers more.

    The powers according to Montesquieu:

    • Executive: managing several aspects of the state, sanction laws from the executive
    • Legislative: make, amend and can repeal laws.
    • Judiciary: Interpret and apply the laws
  • Special power: who can make laws and punish criminals? who can collect taxes? Who can lift armies legally?

  • Who chose those in power? everyone, only the rich, members of the state party, no one: heredity, fate (Lamaism), law of the jungle

  • By what process are the people chosen? election, examination, trial to death, astrology, luck...


This is part of a series of questions that tries to break down the process of creating a world from initial creation of the landmass through to erosion, weather patterns, biomes and every other related topics. Please restrict answers to this specific topic rather than branching on into other areas as other subjects will be covered by other questions.

These questions all assume an earth-like spherical world in orbit in the habitable band.

See the other questions in this series here : http://meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2594/creating-a-realistic-world-series

  • $\begingroup$ similar/related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/23934/… $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @James Your question is only for the middle ages and about the state in general. Mine is just for the political part. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. Hence no close vote ;) $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 14:26

7 Answers 7


I think the right way to think of it is not to make strict categories, but to look at scale parameters. There are very few "all-or-nothing" decisions; most things are questions of scale.

Here are what I think are the most important scales:

Collectivism vs. Individualism

What is more important, the society or its individuals? One extreme is the idea that individuals are worth nothing; all that counts is the collective (the society, the people, whatever you call it). Such ideas were for example at the base of fascist ideologies.

The other extreme is the idea that the only thing that counts are individuals. That's the base of libertarianism and anarchism.

Normally, political systems are in between those extremes. It is considered important that something is done for the common good, but it is also important that the needs and wishes of the individual are met. But different political systems, even if superficially the same, are at different points of that scale. For example, both the USA and western European countries are democracies, yet the USA are much more focused on individualism than most western European countries.

Note that also things like freedom of speech belong in this category: If the collective is more important than the individual, then any speech that harms the collective (or is considered to harm the collective) of course will be restricted. On the other hand, if the individual is considered more important, the individual should be allowed to say anything, even if it harms the collective.

Rule of people vs. rule of law

Basically this is the question: How much are those in power bound by laws they cannot change at will? Note that those laws can come from several sources: It may be a constitution, but it may also be religious laws which the ruler has to obey (especially if the legitimation of the power comes from religion, as was the case for medieval monarchs), or it may come from contracts.

Clearly, for a totalitarian government the power is, by definition, unlimited. The government makes the laws, it is not bound by them. Even if they might be formally be bound by them, since they can change them at will, in reality they aren't.

On the other end of the spectrum might be a "god-state" based on a scripture-religion: The laws of the scripture are not subject of being changed; the most you can do it to dispute how to interpret them (well, in reality they tend to contradict each other, so even a "god-state" government has quite a bit of freedom to select what they see as a best fit for their goals; however one can imagine a hypothetical religion whose scriptures are clear and non-contradictory; in that case there's not much leeway for a government of a state based on that religion).

Democracies are in the middle: Everyone including the government is bound by the laws, and while the people in power can change the laws, even the constitution, there are mechanisms to prevent them from doing so just as they see fit; it takes considerable effort to change the constitution, and those protections are given by the constitution itself (so those regulations are protected by themselves). Moreover, some constitutions have parts that cannot be removed even with an absolute majority (for example, in the German constitution, the human rights have that special protection; even if some party got all the seats in the parliament, they couldn't decide to just remove human rights).

Concentration of power vs. separation of powers

Does one entity hold all powers, or are there different more or less independent entities holding different powers?

Separation of powers is, of course, one of the corner stones of democracy, but already the medieval time knew a separation of powers: The king had the secular power, but the pope had the religious power.

Also note that in modern democracies, separation of powers is not restricted to the classic three branches (legislative, executive, justice), but in many countries there are additional independent entities, for example several countries/supranational organizations (including the USA and the EU) have a relatively independent central bank, which prevents the state from just printing new money to cover its cost.

Centralization of power vs. distribution of power

This one is related to the previous, but here the distribution is not by tasks, but by entities. A central state has a central power which rules everything. In particular, the laws are exactly the same everywhere in the country, as they are made by the central government. On the other hand, a federal country has some of the power not held by the central government, but at the state level. Different states can and will have different laws, despite being part of the same country (or supranational organization). Obviously there's a scale, where the other extreme to a completely centralized government is a collection of completely independent states.

Note that also in medieval times, the power was very much distributed, with every aristocrat having the right to make own laws, and even having his own military, but of course bound by loyalty to the king or emperor.

Status by birth vs. status by achievement

In medieval times, you were born to be a member of a certain status. If you were born a noble, you were a noble, but if you were not born a noble, you had little chance to become noble (the chance was not zero because the king could knight you). To be a king, you had to be the son of a king. Even professions were inherited; if you were the son of a shoemaker, you would have had a hard time to become a shoemaker. Well, unless you decided to get into the church; thanks to celibacy, inheriting church positions was at least somewhat limited.

Also the Indian caste system is a prototypical example of a system where your birth determines who you are. Indeed, it's even more rigid because AFAIK there's no way you can get into a higher caste (apart from reincarnation, of course).

Yet another case of such immobile systems are racist systems like in the past South-African Apartheid.

The other extreme is a society where in principle everyone is equal. What you are is not decided by your birth, but by your actions. The son of a garbage collector can become president, and then he has the same powers as a president whose father already was president. At least nominally, there's no difference. Of course in reality, this ideal is not completely implemented; especially you've got much better chances in life if you are born from rich parents.

Also the totalitarian systems have a large social mobility. Your options may be restricted by the government, but they are not restricted by your birth. If the party finds you are an avid follower of the party line, you can make career in the party, or if you have the abilities, also in another profession. Indeed, the government is actively interested that no coherent groups (apart from the government party) form, because any coherent group might one day challenge the power of the government. So while the determinants of success in the system are different from those in a democracy, they are still independent of your birth.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I really must point out some things. Collectivism, despite intention, always comes out as what is best for society as determined by a select group of people, with their own biases. Libertarianism is individual's choice as long as it doesn't affect others rights, while anarchy is one person's choice to do whatever they want. Also, you make the common mistake of treating democracy as a representative government with a constitution and separation of powers. Democracy is really just mob rule. While these may seem likes pedantic semantics, I believe proper terminology is necessary to properly un $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ Understand governments. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 6:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon: From your first sentence I think this is meant as critique of my answer, but nothing you write contradicts my answer anywhere. Note that the difference between libertarianism and anarchism is on the scale "rule of people vs. rule of law": libertarianism is on the rule of law side (note that the concept of rights only exists in the context of laws; also note that "law" as I defined it in the answer is a rather broad term that also encompasses e.g. contracts), while anarchism is on the side of rule of people (everyone is the absolutist ruler of himself, and himself only). $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 9:14

Government whether enlightened democracy or complete despotism is never maintained via a single "-ism". What is missing is institutions.

I mean long lived social entities like military hierarchy, corporations, church, civil service, tax collectors, ducal fiefdoms, trade guilds etc. These things are the sinews of society and almost all of them will survive any transition of leadership at the top. Many historians have observed that many of the momentous events of world history meant little to the local peasantry because they swapped one lord for another.

Most of the power-holding entities you listed are powerful on paper. In reality even a well upheld constitution as at best a small part of the overall picture.

Modern democracies are not really proper democracies, they are technocracies because we are governed day to day by our institutions like the civil service , police, big corps, tax authorities, central bank etc, none of whom are elected and who survive leadership changes. Electing a republican/conservative or labour/democrat party makes little difference to how most of these institutions behave. And back in the day, a different king made little difference to the relations between serf and lord.

The various categories of government are always secondary to the social machinery that actually does the heavy lifting of governance. What is your state's machinery of social order, and how long have they been around? A long time and you have stability, not long and you have chaos. Of course true incompetence combined with despotism for a long period at the top can destroy such institutions (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe) but this is quite rare. Episodes like Nazi Germany are also rare, and present themselves as the exception that proves the rule.

Also, any polity is constrained by relations with neighbouring states. Degrees of freedom are limited both internally and externally.

Define the long-lived traits, institutions and social fabric of your setting and then see to what extent various leadership and political -isms actually make a material change in the day to day life of the common folk.

The canonical example I would cite is the French Revolution. Lots of heads chopped off, lots of radical -isms and umpteen lofty constitutions but in the end it was ruled by an upstart general (Napoleon) in cahoots with a load of private contractors who supplied the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies because the people in the end wished for stability.

Then after that they went back to having a king for a short while and then they went back to being a republic - but ruled by the rich.

MY view is that to generate a realistic governance scenario one should start at the bottom and work up rather than the other way about. But to answer the questions:

What criteria would be necessary to define the important traits of any government?

  1. How it relates to the non elected official and unofficial social institutions, and specifically to the values held by those institutions. The institutions can be the only possible mechanism for transmission of government policy.
  2. how powerful it is in relation to neighbouring states. If it is weak then the nation will be dominated by foreigners regardless of policy. In this category also falls the difference in political structure. Its difficult (but not impossible) for a despotism to survive if surrounded on all sides by enlightened democracies.
  3. how powerful the top man is versus the second and third echelons of power, regardless of what the paper constitution says should have the power. The second and third echelons may in practice exist in the private sector or the military.

Q: What I'm looking for is a process to create believable governments or ideally a typology to classify them based on certain criteria.


  1. National/Institutional Characteristics: Buearucratic, conservative or progressive/experimental
  2. Power balance between the upper and lower echelons of the elite and the collective power of social institutions that represent commoners.
  3. the nominal -ism enshrined in the paper constitution
  4. The above 3 attributes, applied to neighbouring states

Q: What criteria should we use to make a coherent model?

Can my chosen -ism actually persist and evolve in a reasonably stable way given the social setting defined by answering the questions above?

To what extent does popular/public influence actually change any of the attributes mentioned above within one lifetime?

  • $\begingroup$ "I don't believe in isms. The only thing a man should believe in is himself" - Ferris Bueller $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 6:01

I am (as typical) going to widen the question bit since the title suggests your actual interest is in creating realistic governments. Sadly, classifications and criteria are not very useful in that pursuit. They are useful if you wish to make sense of existing systems as political systems tend to be complex enough to be rather arcane unless you make some simplifications and idealizations. But if you try to do the process in reverse you will generally end up with a cardboard cutout of a government instead of something that feels real. Unless you actually need the details of the politics that may be enough, though.

This is because realistic governments are "organic" constructs that have co-evolved with the society they serve. And yes, all governments do serve their society or collapse. This is because the main service governments provide is stability and cohesion of the society. And failure to provide that usually puts pretty strict limits on the ability of the regime to maintain itself.

Social stability is usually backed by an armed force capable of killing or imprisoning threats, by economic stability and system that makes playing along profitable, and an extensive and elaborate system that establishes the government as legitimate to the people. The relative weight given to these factors will vary based on the maturity and size of the society.

Military force is fast and simple to establish. Building an efficient (a relative term) economy takes more time and resources. Establishing legitimacy, the moral authority of the government, requires a history of positive interaction between the people and government.

These roughly correspond to those platonic categories. A government that primarily relies on force to support itself, will have strict hierarchy and act like "royalty" or "tyranny". A government that relies on self-interest will have a political elite with shared interests and act like "aristocracy" or "oligarchy". A government relying on its legitimacy and moral authority will be "constitutional" or a "democracy".

All real governments have some aspects of all the categories. Even the worst tyranny will try to establish, at some point, some legitimacy and would rather have some economic activity than none at all. Similarly even the most enlightened and popular government would like to have some men with big clubs available, just in case.

Unless talking about an unstable government without established legitimacy the force and economy aspects can be mostly ignored even if the government relies on force or shared interests to support itself. Just note that the regime is a military junta or feudal society built on control of the military or armed knights. Or that the economy is controlled by a small number of powerful families. Usually all the interesting stuff is in the ways the regime supports its claim to being the legitimate government.

This is because the actual government usually happens based on rules and procedures considered legit. So regardless of the actual power base, it is the claims to legitimacy the government has that determine how it operates. Or tries to operate. Unpopular military dictatorship might have to rely on force to solve its problems even when it would prefer otherwise. Even then some kind of facade of legitimacy is usually provided. Often illegal actions are simply hidden.

This gap between what the government claims and what it actually does is one thing you should always make a note of when building realistic governments. It always exists and filling those gaps is what the politics that actually matters is about. A war may seem important, but it is not really about politics and less politics gets involved the better the result usually is.

As mentioned before the kinds of legitimacy and moral authority a government has come from the history the society has. Since moral authority is the most cost efficient kind of authority, governments will want as many and as strong separate claims to legitimacy as they can. So usually there will be a unique mix of all the options below.

The simplest kind is that the government sets itself as the arbiter of justice by making laws and enforcing them. Since the government will usually consider itself legal, its ability to enforce itself as an arbiter of justice directly supplies legitimacy and moral authority. Local authority, tribes, clans and religions provide alternate sources of justice. Different issues will fall under different justice, based on factors that may look irrelevant, but have historical significance.

Noting which issues are under government jurisdiction and which are under local authority, religious court, or some other power will give a good idea of the power of the government with rich historical texture. More precisely the historical reasons for jurisdictions are valuable in being realistic.

Government may claim a religious or ideological mandate. Forms are as variable as religions. The ruling class may be also priests acting as intermediaries between men and heavens. The rulers may claim divine heritage. The government may claim divine mandate, proven by the obvious that a government the gods do not approve would fall. The government may support a state religion, obfuscating the line between supporting the religion and supporting the government. The government may set itself as a champion of a religion or ideology, so that supporters of the religion or ideology will see it in better light.

The religious and ideological mandates government claims are born of long history of the society and add lots of depth. They also add lots of depth to the relations the government has between groups supporting other or same religions or ideologies. Note here that governments are not necessarily homogenous or consistent in their values. And that the people in government may have different values than the government claims. For example the US claims to stand for freedom of religion, but most people running the government make a point to appear supporting Christian values. Such differences make governments realistic since they arise from the historical and social context.

Government may claim a popular mandate, the support of the people. This can be faked by building a personality cult around the great leader. Once legitimacy of the government has been established elections or referendums can be used to maintain it. The government may also simply respond to the needs of the people. While this is quite effective way to gain legitimacy and support, it is also fairly difficult as it requires you to have some idea of what the people need and be able to do something about. It is easier, but less effective, to do what you want and then try to convince people they needed it. You can also cheat by first fabricating the need and then fulfilling it. That is fairly easy and efficient.

Popular support is transient. So while there may be strong political traditions of how governments get a popular support and laws requiring elections, what is actually done in practice may change fairly fast.


A comprehensive and exhaustive method that includes all possible government types is to define different aspects of government with respect to different factors, then go on to mix and match them according to the requirement.

Aspect 1. Size Of The Governing Body

a) Single person (monarchy) b) Small group (aristocracy) c) Large group (modern democracy)

Aspect 2. Primary Role Of Government

a) Absolute (government controls everything starting from how many babies you can have, to foreign policy and defense)

b) Mass Centric (government only controls the aspects which relate directly to the state, leaving people settle their personal disputes)

c) Individual Centric (government makes laws focussed on individuals only)

Note that type b and c are only theoretical. In practice most modern governance systems are located somewhere between b and c.

Aim Of Governance

a) Religious law enforcement (some governments are aimed not at improvement of citizens lifestyle but rather to implement a religious dogma. a good example is several Muslims countries of today, the vetican city state and some medieval roman catholic states)

b) Colonial government (the purpose of this government is to maintain law and order in the state so that the government may collect taxes and send them back to the home country. examples are british and french governments during the colonial ages)

c) Welfare government (basically this is the government you see in all first world countries of modern times. it focusses on improving the materialistic lifestyle of it's citizens)

Economic System

a) Capitalism (most "democratic" countries of today are following this economic model. it focusses on the person who has the money to start a business)

b) Semi-Capitalism / Muslim-Capitalism (here the economic model is still focussing on the investor, but the investor must pay a slight tribute - 2.5% of capital which isn't invested in business for one year - to the poor people of the state. interest banking is also forbidden)

c) Socialism / Communism etc (here an individual does not have ownership rights to anything and everything belongs to the state/government. the individual works and gets paid)

Selection Method

a) Direct Voting (citizens vote for their candidates directly)

b) Indirect Voting (citizens vote for representatives which then form a governing body and select their head themselves)

c) One Party System (basically what you see in China today)

Since these are all different criteria, so you can mix and match them to come up with a unique style of government. For example, you can have a monarchy system (single person government) where the monarch is voted to put in governance for 7 years. The country has a Muslim capitalism economy and the voting system is indirect. The total number of governments you can form this way is very large.


Degrees of fairness.

I will advance the philosophy that nearly all differences in people's success in life are not a result of choices but of blind chance; and thus a meritocracy is just unfairly (lopsidedly) rewarding good luck.

For example, consider somebody with extraordinary good luck: Me. The following may sound like braggadocio; but it is not: Keep in mind I am arguing against merit, and I do not believe I deserve much credit for what I say next.

I have a perfect academic record through 14 years of college, and 5 college degrees in STEM fields, including a PhD. Yet I worked far less than most people around me to achieve that; in fact I mostly wandered into most of it.

In some way I was born to take classes. I can memorize a textbook (and have done so three times, all to "test out" of various history classes). It is short term, and gone from my memory completely within a day or so; but I can do it. Unlike other students, if I pay attention in class (front row, near the center) I do not need to study. A standard "full time" academic load is four classes per semester (12 hours per week attending class). That allows room for study. I have (after signing exemption releases) taken 9 classes, in four different semesters, and aced all of them.

I never struggle with recalling terminology; and I very seldom struggle with understanding the analysis of professionals in any subject; from art analysis to physiology to psychology to all of the sciences. Again, it is short term; once the class is passed, if I don't need it for a subsequent class, my mind seems to discard it. I've taken a dozen classes that I passed with wall to wall 100's, and now can remember almost nothing about, or remember perhaps fifteen minutes worth of ideas that interested me.

I also say it isn't magic; there is an amount of work I must do: Attending class, copying board notes, executing the graded assignments. A great deal of showing up on time.

But many students do all that work plus study for double the class hours, and those are hours I never put in. So when I crush them all in class, and as a result I am given opportunity, jobs, recognition and receive invitations to join various elite organizations, I have to wonder: For what exactly am I being rewarded?

Because I did not work as hard, I put in a third of the effort of my most diligent fellow students. I passed spelling tests in grade school by reading the list of words, once. For the first few my father would test me; without a failure. He gave up on that, and after that I was lucky he told me to read my list, or I might have forgotten! I may not remember those words days later, but during the tests I could "see" full pages of them in the order given.

This is an ability I was born with: I was also born white and male in a white-male dominated society, also as an American citizen, and raised from infancy on an extraordinarily low pollution island (my family was military). I grew taller than most people, a proven advantage in job seeking. I have symmetrical features, I am nearly never sick, and I have good teeth due to good medical and dental care.

I personally did not choose those mental or physical traits or my environment; I don't think I did anything intentionally to make a life change until I was 15. My mental and physical traits are not a result of any practice: My inherent memorization skill was evident by the age of three.

So again, what am I rewarded for? Traits I was born with.

Whatever merit my work and abilities may have (and they have helped many people, and helped make products, businesses and other more scientific efforts quite successful), the secret sauce is not hard work or painful exercise or dedication: I did far less of that than hundreds of others people that were rewarded with a tenth of what has come to me.

This is the central difficult question for any form of meritocracy: Isn't rewarding and respecting somebody for a born trait just as misguided as persecuting or punishing somebody for a born trait?

I am personally happy to live in comfort and be respected, I certainly do not want to give it up. Nevertheless, it is patently unfair that others live in poverty and misery because, through no choice of their own, they were born with disabilities instead of abilities, with dark skin instead of light, as homosexuals instead of heterosexuals, with poor immune systems instead of robust ones, in polluted environments instead of crystal clear paradises. Or born to irresponsible or abusive parents instead of attentive ones, or in poverty instead of wealth or even the middle class: Or as a result of being born thusly, for those whose potential was squandered because the only schools available to them were crappy derelicts, understaffed by the dregs of the teaching profession, making them miss all the crucial learning opportunities during the development of their intellect and brains, which are then gone forever: Adults simply cannot learn like children, and such children are left permanently disadvantaged, through no fault of their own.

The vast majority of "merit" is luck. Millions of kids pour their time into practicing some sport, but only some hundreds in any given sport will ever become professionals.

Like me in academics, those that reach the top will not get there by practicing harder than others: The work does matter, but the millions are doing it: The top performers have something extra they did not gain by choice: Some lucky combination of genes, environment, contacts and social circumstances (being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some unique opportunity). The same goes for acting, for writing, for business, even for inventing.

Merit is over-rated: when thousands compete, the winners are not really working much harder than the best of the rest: Their wins are ultimately due to plain old luck.

The point:

You want to classify governments. It really does not matter too much how many people are in charge, or how exactly decisions are made. A dictator can be benevolent or cruel; likewise with a Congress or Parliament or board of Elders. Whether everybody gets to vote, or only certain qualified people can vote, or nobody votes: Makes little difference in the lives of the people.

The government decides how the society will treat its people, what will be rewarded and what will be punished, what wrongs will be ignored and what will be addressed.

So what really matters is how fair or unfair the government is; how much misery and persecution people must endure, and how imbalanced the punishments and rewards are, and how imbalanced the access to resources, courts, schools, medical care, housing and income are.

The important criteria is; where is the floor on misery for those born with the least of natural mental and physical advantages? Is it homelessness, starvation, and dying of an infection that could have been treated with a dollar's worth of penicillin?

A meritocracy is inherently unfair. Nearly everything about life is a roll of the dice, and it will heap rewards on one and misery on another when neither of them chose a thing. Not to mention that the most miserable often has to work many times harder than the lucky one that is richly rewarded.

What matters in a government is degrees of fairness on all these fronts. There is a good argument, from human nature, for rewards to correlate with ability; it is the rewards that encourage the gifted to develop and pursue their gifts, usually to the betterment of society. The work is still a prerequisite to refining the gift. For example it is hard to become a medical doctor; and without the higher pay and prestige and respect and gratitude for lives saved, many of the rare people capable of doing it would not bother.

However, that does not mean such rewards must be unlimited. In business or in professions.

In other areas of society, merit should not matter at all: being famous, or rich, or a politician, or poor, or unintelligent, should not have any effect whatsoever on one's fate in court. Justice should be equal in every respect to all, from how long one must wait, whether one must wait in prison or not, or whether one gets a good lawyer or not. So, for example, it would be more fair in society if all defense lawyers and all prosecutors (tested for competence) but made exactly the same amount of money no matter who they represented. By somehow eliminating the possibility of a lawyer getting rich by having a rich client or negotiating a huge settlement, the lawyers would have fewer incentives to represent the rich over anybody else. The same idea could apply to doctors and other professionals whose decisions routinely have life altering consequences.

Rewarding people for good luck is fine; but to me, government should provide some leveling mechanism so that people do not suffer for lack of luck, or just bad luck. I do not mean there should be no disparity of income or comfort or entertainments: Getting "ahead" in society is a strong motivator to actually put in the hours of work and learning required to develop one's inborn talents, be they athletic, acting, scientific, creative or artistic.

What I mean is better governments do a better job of minimizing human misery for that 49.9% of society born with less luck than most of their fellow citizens, and ensuring that treatment is fair to all: There may be an elite class of businessmen and stars in sport, music, acting and arts: but there should be zero elite when it comes to the courts, prisons, law enforcement, legal representation, education, health care, nutrition, drinking water and other environmental concerns.

A typology based upon Degrees of Fairness in these many categories will tell you far more about a government and a society than how many people are in Congress or whether a governor can pardon a criminal. Those things are really a proxy (and a poor one) for what is ultimately degrees of fairness: An ability of a King, President or Governor to pardon somebody and overturn a decision by a jury is less fair. Prosecutorial discretion, as in the ability of a prosecutor to choose not to prosecute a police officer for a murder-on-tape, is less fair. "Representative" government, as in denying citizens the ability to vote directly on laws and regulations, taxes and decisions to go to war that can have dramatic effects on their lives, is less fair.

Judgment of a government is going to come down to the totality of fairness or unfairness it causes; all other traits are just proxies for how we can expect that will ultimately work out. A robust typology will attempt to measure directly the actual Degrees of Fairness achieved in categories that really matter the most to the people being governed.

  • $\begingroup$ "Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything", as wise people say. +1 for honesty, but you may want to investigate what is fairness, and how can the multiple aspects of fairness be reconciled. For example, it's only fair that those who can learn quickly (thus reducing the inherent mistakes and enhancing adaptability) be given leadership over those who cannot. I would certainly prefer to be led by a quick learner than by a dullard. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I disagree, how is that fair? I am in the top tier of fast learners (however many it may be; at some point I don't think we are 'rankable' any more; we are just all on the same plateau). A fast learner can be a psychopath; they aren't mutually exclusive conditions. I'd like to be led by an altruist that can negotiate well, and make emotional connections, and listens to reason. As their servant let me do the fast learning, because I can also quickly learn to personalize my findings to their exact level of understanding so I can communicate quickly what they need to know next. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Well, it's fair because to everyone according to their needs, from everyone according to their abilities. There is no difference between a natural born negotiator and someone who learns how to negotiate; and I really don't see why altruism would be necessary or even useful in a leader: I don't want my leader to be ready to give me their shirt, I want them to find or create the best conditions for my team / squad / firm / city / nation. But I understand and respect your position; equality of outcome is as respectable a doctrine as is equality of opportunity. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP There is no difference between a natural born negotiator and someone who learns how to negotiate; --- Yes there definitely is; and you clearly do not understand altruism. An altruist is not a patsy or pushover or milquetoast; every soldier that jumped on a grenade to save his friends was acting altruistically; Firemen are altruists. The reason we want altruists to lead is we do not want leaders that cannot put aside selfish interests, that won't give up what they want (eg lower business taxes) to do what is best for complete strangers (eg better public health care). $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 22:16

Few additional criteria to consider:

How much power. Simplistically, power (aka rights) belongs to people. Some of it is delegated to - or usurped by - the state. This amount maps governments from totalitarian (people left with no rights) to liberal to anarchy (state has no power). This is IMHO most important distinction.

Notice that government form doesn't matter. Democracy could very well be totalitarian; king may have no say against barons.

Economic powers. Emission of currency (or just minting); direct or incentival control of economy; customs and tariffs.

Church and state. To what extent church and state are separated. Are they at odds or not. Does church autonomously regulate certain aspects (e.g. marriage, or education) in the otherwise secular state.


Practical government must choose what it want. Many poor country with dictator have much freedom like no motorcycle helmets or car seat belt law, people build their house never ask government permission, few pollution rule, etc but strong rule about political party, party and government symbols/flag, protest, criticize government, need permission for print book, etc. Other country opposite need permission for almost everything but can criticize government, create new political party and print book with no permission.

Even dictators can’t force people do stuff if enough people refuse. Việt Nam government try force people use coin money instead paper money for < 10 000đ but people refuse it (coins vanish), have plan forbid motorcycle in Hà Nội, year 2030, but people complain (very stupid will cause traffic become very bad, motorcycle much smaller more people can travel on a road than 4 wheel car, later government revoke plan), government talk about plan change language spelling system and people every where say stupid idea (government forget this idea), government try silly idea force every person buy health insurance but people refuse (government give up).

Some level civil disobedience always exists because physics/resource limit government power. Illegal gambling, avoid tax, import forbidden stuff, private criticize government and leaders is common in many third world countries with dictators. Also harder control far province from capital, rural and wild areas have few people. Myanmar have some mountain province almost freedom from control power in capital, require too much resource try control far provinces, best use resource other place. Afghanistan also country have many independent province.

Law is just rules politician create, nothing sacred; law ≠ moral ≠ fair; illegal ≠ immoral ≠ unfair. Law alway change, not static. Also common people apply/understand law different compare with government official, police, lawyer, or judge. Corruption is a tool, can use it for bad or good. People only respect law they think is fair/ moral and often follow moral behavior with no law. People have moral behavior from evolution, help people survive in prehistory times. People ignore law they think is unfair, good example is immigration and foreigner workers. Governments can only use police/military for make people fear law, can’t force respect.

Good video about governments: Rules For Rulers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs&t=2s

  • $\begingroup$ I have skimmed through the numerous, long answers that already exist for this almost 3 year old question and i feel like yours does not add anything new. You did not really give specific criteria to sort governments either like other answers did. And since the other answers are more detailed and elaborate on the points you also made i recommend deletion as this additional answer is unnecessary. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 10:17

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