Distinguish limited from unlimited government, and provide examples of each type of government.


Focus Question: What are the characteristics of limited and unlimited government?


In a limited government, the power of the government is limited by laws and regulation, which is often written into a constitution. These laws provide protection of civil liberties against government encroachment.
  • There are numerous variations of limited governments, including federal republics, constitutional monarchies, and parliamentary democracies.
  • The United States is considered a federal republic.
  • Unlimited governments are run by a single person or group, with no checks on power. Absolute monarchies, fascist states and military juntas are all forms of unlimited government.
    • Present day North Korea (a one-man dictatorship) is a present-day unlimited government.

rotating gif.gifFor more see, United States History I.13

2008 World map showing countries considered “electoral democracies”
2008 World map showing countries considered “electoral democracies”


Map icon.pngSee this interactive map of Systems of Government by Country.

MAP.jpgFor another listing, see Government Types from the CIA World Factbook that defines each type of government as well as identifying the governmental type of every nation in the world.



Political poster demanding a Digital Direct Democracy
Political poster demanding a Digital Direct Democracy

Limited Government


In a limited government, the intervening power of the government is limited by laws and regulation, and the government is thus prevented from interfering with civil liberties.

This is often written into a constitution; thus the term "constitutional governmental" is often used. One of the most important characteristics of a limited government is that it does not have authoritarian power. Instead, the government is made up of democratically elected officials that vote on issues or laws.

Limited government is a broad term encompassing numerous types of governments, including parliamentary democracies (Poland), constitutional monarchies (Malaysia, the U.K.), constitutional republics (Uruguay), parliamentary monarchies (Spain) and federal republics (Brazil, Nigeria). The United States is considered a federal republic.

This means that it is a federation of states with a republic government. The term republic derives from the Latin "res publica" which roughly translates to "public affairs," because the Roman Republic was governed by a Senate after overthrowing the king.

primary_sources.PNGThe Magna Carta was one of the first documents which limited the power of government by challenging the King of England's sovereignty.

primary_sources.PNGThe United States Constitution is a document which outlines the limits of power. The Constitution was designed to limit the government's role to its most necessary functions by creating a system of checks and balances and by describing the terms of election by the people. The Bill of Rights contains a number of constitutional amendments protecting personal freedoms such as the right to free speech, right to trial, and the right to vote.

rotating gif.gifSee also Standard USG 1.9 which contains links to fundamental documents of limited government.


A chart showing connections between the three branches of government in the United States (from Wikimedia Commons):

Political_System_of_the_United_States.svg.jpg


Unlimited Government


Unlimited Government means "authoritarian and totalitarian systems" (National Standards for Civics and Government, Center for Civic Education, 1994, p. 91). These systems are usually defined by government systems that are controlled by a small group or single ruler. This group or ruler has supreme control over rights and decision making and can exercise the right to take away personal liberties. Absolute monarchies, theocracies, and military juntas are types of unlimited governments.

A distinction is often made between authoritarian vs. totalitarian forms of unlimited government.
  • Authoritarian governments are systems where power is concentrated in the hands on one person or a small group.
  • Totalitarian governments are systems that seek to control every aspect of people's lives.

Nazi Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin are historical examples of unlimited governments. Iran is a theocratic authoritarian government where the Ayatollah is the Supreme Leader whose powers are mostly unchecked. North Korea is a present-day totalitarian state, operating as a one-man dictatorship by Kim Il Sung.

Germany as an Example


external image hitler-speech-3.jpg

Germany, under control of Hitler and the Nazi party, was an example of unlimited government.

This page, and the ones that follow it, explain how the Nazi party came to power, as well as how it exercised totalitarian control over its people. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has photographs, animated maps, and historical film footage to exemplify this control.

The Anne Frank Museum has an entire portion of their website devoted to teaching tools.

Iran as an Example


rotating gif.gifFor an historical overview, see World History II.47

Iran is controlled primarily by the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  • Iran is considered theocratic because nearly every aspect of the political sphere is theoretically based in Islamic, or Sharia, law.
  • However, the entire government structure is very complex and forms more of a hybrid-style government.
  • Unlike authoritarian regimes like North Korea or Soviet Russia, Iran has some checks and balances in place.
  • Just like how the American system of government combines elements from multiple styles of governing, Iran blends together different aspects. Overall, the product is a mostly authoritarian regime in which all decisions go through the Supreme Leader.
ayatollah.jpg
Current Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei


Click here for a BBC chart showing Iran's complex system of government.

This PBS article"The Structure of Power in Iran, explains each aspect of the Iranian government in more detail.

The Huffington Post has many great articles related to the struggle of women living in Iran today.

See the Dateline NBC two part video, "Inside Iran."


North Korea as an Example


See World History II.32 for background on the Korean War
Multimedia.pngSee Inside North Korea from BBC Panorama News on YouTube.

How North Korean Children are Taught to Hate the 'American b*********" at KIndergarten focuses on the use of schools to promote anti-American indoctrination.

See Ask a North Korean from the Guardian to read about how women are treated in North Korea.

See this time lapse from National Geographic through the capital city of Pyongyang.

In present-day North Korea, the dictatorship is supported by government-sponsored propaganda, of which the following monument is an example. This propaganda enhances the image of the "Supreme Leader" by creating a cult of personality, encouraging national pride, and mandating devotion to the state and its leaders.
Kim_Jong-il_and_Kim_Jong-suk_at_Mansudae_Art_Studio.JPG

lessonplan.jpgWhile propaganda is used by democracies and totalitarian states alike, the discussion of propaganda as a tool for convincing the masses can be useful in educating students on how an unlimited government can come into power unopposed by its citizens. This lesson plan has students understand the role of propaganda in the rise of Nazi Germany and fascism throughout Europe in the 1930s.