We investigate empirically the determinants of the quality of governments in a large cross-section of countries. We assess government performance using measures of government intervention, public sector efficiency, public good provision, size of government, and political freedom. We find that countries that are poor, close to the equator, ethnolinguistically heterogeneous, use French or socialist laws, or have high proportions of Catholics of Muslims exhibit inferior government performance. We also find that the larger governments tend to be the better performing ones. The importance of (reasonably) exogenous historical factors in explaining the variation in government performance across countries sheds light on the economic, political, and cultural theories of institutions. Copyright 1999 by Oxford University Press.