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Types of classification schemes

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The almost infinite range of political systems has been barely suggested in this brief review. Confronted by the vast array of political forms, political scientists have attempted to classify and categorize, to develop typologies and models, or in some other way to bring analytic order to the bewildering variety of data. Many different schemes have been developed. There is, for example, the classical distinction between governments in terms of the number of rulers—government by one man (monarchy or tyranny), government by the few (aristocracy or oligarchy), and government by the many (democracy). There are schemes classifying governments in terms of their key institutions (for example, parliamentarism, cabinet government, presidentialism). There are classifications that group systems according to basic principles of political authority or the forms of legitimacy (charismatic, traditional, rational-legal, and others). Other schemes distinguish between different kinds of economic organization in the system (the laissez-faire state, the corporate state, and socialist and communist forms of state economic organization) or between the rule of different economic classes (feudal, bourgeois, and capitalist). And there are modern efforts to compare the functions of political systems (capabilities, conversion functions, and system maintenance and adaptation functions) and to classify them in terms of structure, function, and political culture.

Although none is comprehensive, each of these principles of analysis has some validity, and the classifying schemes that are based on them, although in some cases no longer relevant to modern forms of political organization, have often been a major influence on the course of political development. The most influential of such classifying schemes is undoubtedly the attempt of Plato and Aristotle to define the basic forms of government in terms of the number of power holders and their use or abuse of power. Plato held that there was a natural succession of the forms of government: an aristocracy (the ideal form of government by the few) that abuses its power develops into a timocracy (in which the rule of the best men, who value wisdom as the highest political good, is succeeded by the rule of men who are primarily concerned with honour and martial virtue), which through greed develops into an oligarchy (the perverted form of government by the few), which in turn is succeeded by a democracy (rule by the many); through excess, the democracy becomes an anarchy (a lawless government), to which a tyrant is inevitably the successor. Abuse of power in the Platonic typology is defined by the rulers’ neglect or rejection of the prevailing law or custom (nomos); the ideal forms are thus nomos observing (ennomon), and the perverted forms are nomos neglecting (paranomon). Although disputing the character of this implacable succession of the forms of government, Aristotle also based his classification on the number of rulers and distinguished between good and bad forms of government. In his typology it was the rulers’ concern for the common good that distinguished the ideal from perverted forms of government. The ideal forms in the Aristotelian scheme are monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (a term conveying some of the meaning of the modern concept of “constitutional democracy”); when perverted by the selfish abuse of power, they are transformed respectively into tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy (or the mob rule of lawless democracy). The concept of the polity, a “mixed” or blended constitutional order, fascinated political theorists for another millennium. To achieve its advantages, innumerable writers from Polybius to St. Thomas Aquinas experimented with the construction of models giving to each social class the control of appropriate institutions of government.

Another very influential classifying scheme was the distinction between monarchies and republics. In the writings of Machiavelli and others, the tripartism of classical typologies was replaced by the dichotomy of princely and republican rule. Sovereignty in the monarchy or the principality is in the hands of a single ruler; in republics, sovereignty is vested in a plurality or collectivity of power holders. Reducing aristocracy and democracy to the single category of republican rule, Machiavelli also laid the basis in his analysis of the exercise of princely power for a further distinction between despotic and nondespotic forms of government. In the work of Montesquieu, for example, despotism, or the lawless exercise of power by the single ruler, is contrasted with the constitutional forms of government of the monarchy and the republic. As a result of the decline of monarchies and the rise of new totalitarian states terming themselves republics, this traditional classification is now, of course, of little more than historical interest.


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