4.2.2 Forms of government, good and bad

Back to 4.2.1

Unit 4 Contents


In the introduction to this unit (4.1.3), we recalled that four main forms of government have been distinguished in western political thinking:

Kingship:                       rule by one

Aristocracy:                   rule by a few (the best)

Republic/democracy:    rule by many

Mixed constitution:     rule by a combination of one, a few and many

However there is another vital element that we need to add to this description.  This is a basic distinction that, while originating in ancient Greek political thought, has been endorsed throughout the history of Christian political thought.

It is the distinction between ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’.



What do you think the fundamental way of distinguishing between good and bad government could be?


Suppose government is by a king, that is, a king who exercises real power, not only a figurehead.  Either this monarch really seeks to rule in a way that will benefit the whole society.  Or he is driven by a desire for private gain – to use the power and wealth at his disposal for his own private ends.

That is a very clear contrast.  The western tradition of political thought has from the beginning held that those who have political authority, such as this king, have a fundamental responsibility to exercise it for the sake of the good of the whole society, not for private gain.

If the king does not act for the sake of the community as a whole, but instead acts solely to pursue his own private interests, he has, in effect, ceased to occupy a public role and has become a private person.  Such a king is no longer a king but has become a ‘tyrant’.  In this word’s strict sense, it means a monarch, a single ruler, who uses political power only for his own sake.

We can distinguish, therefore, two kinds of ‘rule by one’, two kinds of monarchy:

                              Good form                                    Bad form


Rule by one:         Kingship                                         Tyranny

                               – for the benefit of society         – in the ruler’s own interest

In fact, any real king is not going to have perfectly pure motives, and even if he is deeply committed to ruling for the sake of the whole society, he may well at times fall into the temptation to make use of his power for private benefit.  Lack of perfection, though, is not the same as tyranny.

The fundamental distinction between good and bad government, then, is as follows:1

  • Good government is for the benefit of the whole community – for the common good, as CST sees it.  Those who rule are characterized by the virtues of justice, courage and temperance.
  • Bad government is for the self-interest of those who rule, whether this is one person or a group.  The rulers manifest not virtues but vices, such as avarice, pride and vainglory.

In the city of Siena in Italy, there is an amazing set of medieval murals which portray ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’.  They are in a grand room, called the Hall of Peace, where those who ruled what was then a republican city-state met to carry out their duties.  There are three separate murals, on three of the four walls, and they are known respectively as:

  • ‘Allegory of Good Government’
  • ‘Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country’
  • ‘Allegory and Effects of Bad Government in the City and the Country’

At a website called Smarthistory there is an excellent 10-minute film about the murals, which are by an artist called Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  This is well worth watching because these paintings portray vividly the way in which the long tradition of western political thought has understood the distinction between good and bad government.


Video (10 minutes)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good GovernmentEffects of Good Government in the City and the Country, and Allegory and Effects of Bad Government in the City and the Country, Siena c. 1337-40:

Film and commentary Beth Harris and Steven Zucker


As I said above, ‘tyranny’ is, strictly speaking, bad government by a single ruler, a tyrant.  If bad government is by ‘the few’, i.e. by a small group of cronies, it is called ‘oligarchy’.  This literally means ‘rule by the wealthy’ and is the opposite of aristocracy.  For bad government ‘by the many’ – e.g. by a particular class in society or even by a democratic majority who use their power in their own interests rather than for the good of the whole society – I shall for the moment use the strongly negative label, ‘mob rule’.  Another way of describing this is ‘rule by non-citizens’, and we shall explore what this means in a moment.

We can, therefore, complete the table of different forms of government as follows:2

4.2.2 Forms of gov't tableThis table is bound to raise some questions.  The most obvious is this: why have I not included the word ‘democracy’ as one label for ‘rule by many’?  Another question is: what does it mean to distinguish ‘rule by citizens’ from ‘rule by non-citizens’?

Before we come to these questions, we need to focus on two other points that are fundamentally important for understanding Catholic teaching on the subject of Unit 4.  I have already referred to the first: the Catholic tradition of political thought has always endorsed this fundamental distinction between good and bad government.  For example, in the 1960s Pacem in Terris said the following, quoting Pope Leo XIII making the same point in 1885:

Every civil authority must take pains to promote the common good of all, without preference for any single citizen or civic group.   As… Leo XIII has said, “The civil power must not serve the advantage of any one individual, or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all”. (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, #56, quoting Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, #5)

In the same decade, the Second Vatican Council stated: “those political systems… are to be reproved which… divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves” (Gaudium et Spes, #73).

We can see recent evidence of this in the way that some national Catholic bishops’ conferences have contributed to public debate before elections.  For example, in the UK’s 2001 General Election, the Church’s official publication giving advice on how to vote was entitled, simply. ‘Vote for the Common Good’. Clearly, this is advocating that people do not vote only in their private interest but for the sake of the good of the whole society.  Prior to the general election in Australia in 2013, the Catholic bishops there published a statement with almost the same title, ‘A Vote for the Common Good’.  In fact, the fundamental point that these titles put across could be made in election campaigns in all countries.

The second point is this: throughout most of the Church’s history, Catholic teaching has held that the issue of whether there is, in the sense just outlined, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ government is much more important than what constitutional form it has.  In other words, any and every government, of whatever form, has an overriding duty to ensure that it governs justly and for the common good.  Whether it happens to be structured as rule by one, a few, many, or a combination of all of these, is a secondary issue.

On the basis of this, official Church teaching, especially before about half way through the twentieth century, has usually taken no position on the question of forms of government.  Rather, it has seen this as something on which there can legitimately be real differences, depending on historical experiences and circumstances.  For example, if a longstanding monarchy does justice for its subjects, this is the main thing that matters.

Here is one expression of this, from Leo XIII in 1881, ten years before Rerum Novarum.  He was addressing the question of whether Catholics could embrace democratic forms of government.  This was during a period when democracy was beginning to spread beyond just a small number of countries and there were prominent debates about extension of the franchise.3

[T]hose who may be placed over the State [i.e. those who govern] may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude, without opposition to or impugning of the Catholic doctrine…  There is no question here respecting forms of government, for there is no reason why the Church should not approve of the chief power being held by one man or by more, provided only it be just, and that it tend to the common advantage. Wherefore, so long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors.  (Leo XIII, Diuturnum, ##6-7)

The question this raises for our study of CST in the period since then is: does the Catholic Church still hold to this position of relative indifference among forms of government, or has it come to support democracy as better, in principle, than other forms?

This question will be with us for the rest of this unit.

We now need to consider further the fundamental contrast introduced just now between ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’, in order to work out how this distinction applies in relation to democracy.



Here is the third row from the above table:

                                Good government                          Bad government

Rule by many:          Republican government /            ‘Mob rule’ /

                                      rule by citizens                                rule by non-citizens

What do you think this contrast between ‘rule by citizens’ and ‘rule by non-citizens’ could mean?                                                


This is a tricky question because in a modern democracy all adults are understood to be citizens.  Moreover their passports often confirm that they are. For example, my passport states that I am a British Citizen.

Who, then, are ‘non-citizens’?  In fact, I am not meaning to suggest that there is any specific group of ‘non-citizens’.  Rather, the point of making that distinction between ‘citizens’ and ‘non-citizens’ is to enable us to focus on what people are doing when they vote in elections.

People can vote on the basis of their judgment about what is best for the whole society.  When they do this, they are acting as ‘citizens’ – members of the ‘city’ concerned about its overall good.

But people can also vote on the narrow basis of what they will get out of government for themselves, that is, on the basis of what is in their private interests.  For example, someone might vote for a party promising lower taxes because, if that party wins, she will have more disposable income – and she might do this regardless of whether she thinks reduced taxes will be better or worse for the society overall.  If someone votes on this basis, they are not doing so as a citizen, but as a private individual.  They are acting as though it is legitimate to use political power for their own private benefit.  But to do this is precisely the definition of ‘bad government’.  (Incidentally, that example is not meant to suggest that people might not vote for lower taxes because they believe these will benefit the country as a whole, regardless of the impacts on them personally.)

What the above makes very clear is that just having a constitution that gives all a right to vote in elections does not at all guarantee that you will have ‘good government’.  On the contrary, if many or even most people vote on the basis of what they think is in their own private interests, without concern about what is best for the whole society, they are exemplifying ‘bad government’.

You should now be able to see the way in which the fundamental distinction between good and bad government applies when there is ‘rule by many’.  The good form is ‘rule by citizens’ – which traditionally has been called ‘republican’ government because it is for the sake of the republic.  The bad form is ‘rule by non-citizens’ – that is, by people who could act as citizens but do not because they make use of political power merely in their own private interests.  Their passports may say they are citizens, but if they vote on that basis they have given up on the practice of citizenship.  I have called this ‘mob rule’ in the table, as what it means in practice is that political decisions are determined by what the majority happens to want for themselves.  It could be seen as tyranny by the majority.



Does this distinction between what ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’ mean when there is ‘rule by many’ make sense to you?

Does it seem important or trivial?


But what should we say about ‘democracy’?  I have not used this word in the past few paragraphs.  Where does democracy fit in to the table?  Is it a good or bad form of government?



End of 4.2.2

Go to 4.2.3 Where does ‘democracy’ fit in?

Module B outline

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  1. This distinction was first articulated clearly by Aristotle: “constitutions which aim at the common advantage are correct and just without qualification, whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers are deviant and unjust, because they involve despotic rule” (Politics, 1279a17–21). 

  2. What this table represents is largely derived from Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, on which see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/. I comment on this further below. 

  3. If universal adult (i.e. male and female) franchise is seen as a necessary condition of democracy, no country was democratic in 1881, as you know from the last screen.  There was universal male suffrage in fewer than 10 countries in 1881.  Nevertheless extending the franchise was a leading subject of political debate in several countries for some decades before and after that year.