Federalism Research Paper

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‘Federalism’ refers to both an arrangement of political institutions and a philosophy of government. Federalism as a set of institutional arrangements denotes a political system in which power is shared between a central government and regional governments. Federalism as a philosophy of government holds that such federal structures are a desirable governmental form.

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1. Federalism And Related Terms

The distinction between ‘federalism’ and related terms should be clarified. A government displaying the institutional characteristics of federalism is referred to as a ‘federal system,’ and the institutional structures themselves are described with the adjective ‘federal.’ A federal system is contrasted with a ‘unitary system’ of government in which all major decisions are made by the central government; some degree of administrative decentralization, however, may be present in a unitary system. The terms ‘federalism’ and ‘federal system’ have been used as overarching terms which encompass a variety of more specific types of political arrangements, including federations, confederacies, and leagues (Riker 1975). The origins of the word ‘federal’ can be traced to the Latin foedus, denoting a league, treaty, or covenant. The term ‘intergovernmental relations’ refers to interactions between different governmental units within a political system. This term includes but is not limited to the study of interactions between central and regional governments within federal systems.

2. The Normative Study Of Federalism

The study of federalism can be usefully divided into normative and empirical branches. The normative branch, which dates back centuries and remains very important today, includes the arguments in favor of the US constitution put forth in The Federalist. This normative literature consists of systematic consideration of federalism as a philosophy of government, including the enumeration of possible advantages and disadvantages of federal systems.

Proponents of federalism argue that federal systems are desirable because they may produce a number of advantageous consequences. In particular, advocates of federalism suggest that federal systems protect citizens against tyranny by dividing power among central and regional governments; expand possibilities for political participation by increasing the number of governments within a political system; allow for regional variations in public policy that are reflective of geographic differences in citizen preferences; and provide multiple governmental ‘laboratories’ in which innovative policy responses to public problems can be tested (Shapiro 1995).

Other scholars have argued that federal systems may produce a variety of negative consequences. For example, federal systems may encourage regional inequalities in the distribution of the costs and benefits of public policies; allow for the oppression of local minorities by local majorities within the subnational jurisdictions; and produce an undesirable ‘race to the bottom,’ in which regional governments attempt to attract economic enterprises by lowering regulatory standards and reducing governmental taxation and expenditure (Shapiro 1995).

3. The Empirical Study Of Federalism

The empirical branch of the study of federalism has focused on the description and measurement of federal systems, and also on the establishment of relevant causal relationships.

3.1 Descriptive Approaches

In the descriptive realm, scholars have been concerned above all with identifying the core characteristics of federalism, characterizing variation in federal systems, and describing the mechanisms through which federal systems operate. At the heart of the federal idea is the division of powers and responsibilities between an overarching central government exercising authority over a broad territory, on the one hand, and a number of constituent governments each exercising authority over a particular subset of that territory, on the other. This division of power is generally enshrined in a constitution that guarantees the existence of all of the governments and provides at least a rough outline of the division of power among them.

Within these broad parameters, scholars have offered a range of more specific definitions of federalism, and no universal agreement about the term’s precise definition has been reached. Different definitions produce somewhat differing classifications of political systems into federal and nonfederal categories. The result is that the term ‘federal’ can be applied to a variety of political systems in which power is shared between general and constituent governments. The political institutions of ancient Israel and the Greek city-states displayed federal characteristics. The US federal system, established in 1789, has served as the prototype of modern federalism (Elazar 1968). At the turn of the twenty-first century, significant federal elements existed in political systems across the globe, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the USA, and Venezuela (Elazar 1994).

Among federal systems, there is variation in the degree and character of the distribution of power between national and regional governments. This variation can be observed both in formal constitutional arrangements and in the working relationships among different levels of government within a political system. One component of the variation between federal systems, and within individual systems over time, is the extent to which powers and responsibilities rest with the central government or with the regional governments. Federal systems also vary in the extent to which these powers are either strictly divided between levels of government or shared between those levels of government.

With respect to the first of these dimensions, scholars have not yet reached a consensus about a precise way to measure the relative centralization and decentralization of federal systems (Watts 1998). The formal distribution of powers set forth in constitutions may provide some insight into the comparative degree of centralization between systems. Such a constitutional focus has limitations, however, and is unlikely to be as useful in measuring changes over time within a federal system. Here, close attention must be paid to legislative and judicial decisions altering the balance of power between the central government and the constituent governments. One summary measure that is commonly examined is the proportion of governmental expenditures undertaken by the central government, either in total or in particular policy areas (Peterson 1995). Efforts to characterize variation in the distribution of powers between general and constituent governments in federal systems have also led to the development of a wide range of metaphors and conceptual models (e.g., ‘dual federalism,’ ‘cooperative federalism’). These metaphors and models attempt to characterize either the degree of centralization in a federal system or the extent to which powers are strictly divided or cooperatively shared between levels of government, or both. In all, Stewart (1982) found more than 300 such models and metaphors that had been proposed in the literature.

Descriptive studies have also examined, both statically and dynamically, the mechanisms through which federal systems operate. Core areas of concern here include the constitutional, legislative, and judicial processes through which powers are allocated between levels of government, and the fiscal (e.g., grants-inaid), regulatory, and political instruments through which governments within a federal system influence each other’s actions (Wright 1988).

3.2 Causal Approaches

The causal branch of the empirical study of federalism addresses two major areas of concern: the causes and consequences of the establishment and dissolution of federal systems, and the causes and consequences of changes in how powers are divided between governments within federal systems.

Federal systems can be established either by joining together previously independent governments, or by decentralizing power in a previously unitary state. The formation of federal systems involves somewhat different processes and conditions in each of these two cases. In all cases, however, federal systems emerge under political conditions that contain strong pressures for both political unity (in the form of a national government) and political autonomy (in the form of regional governments with meaningful powers).

The pressures for unity most commonly result from a desire for military or economic advantage that constituent governments feel cannot be achieved independently. When federal systems are formed from previously independent governments, the reluctance of these governments to cede too much power to a newly formed central government creates pressure for regional autonomy. More generally, pressures for autonomy most commonly involve protecting constituent governments’ diverse interests, whether based on nationality, language, ethnicity, religion, economy, or other variables. Against the backdrop of these general dynamics, scholars have debated what conditions are necessary and sufficient to produce a federal system, with particular discussion of cultural, economic, political, social, and historical variables (Riker 1975).

Scholars have sought to understand not only why federal systems are formed, but also what the consequences of federal systems are. For example, federal systems can have important consequences for the management of ethnic conflict, either mitigating or exacerbating ethnic tensions, depending on the particular institutional arrangements in place.

The late twentieth century witnessed the disintegration of some political systems that were federal in principle or practice, including the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. The survival of federal systems is imperiled when institutional arrangements reinforce rather than crosscut existing lines of division within the system, or when one group or constituent government representing a super-majority dominates the overall system (Watts 1998, Elazar 1968).

At a less macroscopic level, the causal study of federalism focuses to a significant extent on the evolution of federal systems: why the distribution of powers changes in federal systems, and with what consequences. There are numerous studies of the proximate impact of legislative, judicial, and executive decisions on the distribution of powers in federal systems. Other analysts have focused on the role of underlying forces such as changes in technology, culture, ideology, society, and economy (Anton 1984).

In all, there is significant dissatisfaction among scholars with the current state of our ability to construct robust theories of why federal systems evolve in the ways that they do (Beam et al. 1983). Explanations focusing on proximate causes have been criticized for being atheoretical and for too often relying on single case studies. Analyses focusing on underlying causes have not produced a clear consensus (Anton 1984). Understanding the causes of centralization and decentralization in federal systems will remain an important area of investigation in the decades ahead.

Scholars may increasingly attempt to link explanations focusing on proximate and underlying causes, constructing theories that specify how underlying forces such as culture or economy might in turn produce centralizing or decentralizing actions by proximate institutions such as legislatures or courts.

Scholars have also discussed the consequences of centralization and decentralization within federal systems. For example, there is evidence that decentralized systems make decentralized political party structures more likely (Riker 1975). In another realm, some scholars have argued that decentralization of redistributive and regulatory functions may lead to a competitive spiral in which subnational governments reduce their interventions in these areas (Peterson 1995).

4. Future Directions

Several areas of the study of federalism will likely be of particular importance in the first decades of the twenty-first century, as the literature continues to respond to important political developments. Scholars will be particularly interested in: the interaction between economic globalization and federal structures; the emergence and evolution of supranational federal arrangements, including the European Union; and the relationship between federal structures and the management of conflict in multiethnic political systems.


  1. Anton T J 1984 Intergovernmental change in the United States: An assessment of the literature. In: Miller T (ed.) Public Sector Performance: A Conceptual Turning Point. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, pp. 15–64
  2. Beam D R, Conlan T J, Walker D B 1983 Federalism: The challenge of conflicting theories and contemporary practice. In: Finifter A (ed.) Political Science: The State of the Discipline. American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, pp. 247–79
  3. Elazar D J 1968 Federalism. In: Sills D L (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Macmillan, New York, Vol. 5, pp. 353–67
  4. Elazar D J (ed.) 1994 Federal Systems of the World, 2nd edn. Longman, Harlow, UK
  5. Peterson P E 1995 The Price of Federalism. The Twentieth Century Fund, New York
  6. Riker W H 1975 Federalism. In: Polsby N W, Greenstein F I (eds.) Handbook of Political Science. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, Vol. 5, pp. 93–172
  7. Shapiro D L 1995 Federalism: A Dialogue. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
  8. Stewart W H 1982 Metaphors, models, and the development of federal theory. Publius: The Journal of Federalism 12: 5–24
  9. Watts R L 1998 Federalism, federal political systems, and federations. Annual Review of Political Science 1: 117–37
  10. Wright D S 1988 Understanding Intergovernmental Relations, 3rd edn. Brooks Cole, Pacific Grove, CA
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