Unitary Government - History

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Unitary government - system of government in which all authority is placed in a central government. Countries with unitary governments, such as Great Britain and France, have regional and local governments which derive their power from the central government.

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In a federal system, power is concentrated in the states in a unitary system, it is concentrated in the national government. In a federal system, the constitution allocates powers between states and federal government in a unitary system, powers are lodged in the national government.

In such government all powers held by the government belong to a single, central agency. The central government creates local units of government for its own convenience. A unitary system is governed constitutionally as one single unit, with one constitutionally created legislature. All power is top down.

17 Big Advantages and Disadvantages of a Unitary Government

A unitary government is a state which is governed under a single central governing structure which treats itself as being the final say in every decision. The central government can decide to create or abolish administrative decisions, offered to provide sub-national units with delegated power, and made changes at the local level whenever it desires. It is the most common form of governing in the world today, with 165 of 193 UN member states having a unitary system of government.

The contrast with a federal state is this: whereas the federal state sees the national government as being an equal actor with the other levels of required governing (local, county, and state/provincial), the unitary government sees itself as being superior. It is possible to have a unitary republic or monarchy while using this structure.

Two of the best examples of this form of government are found in the United Kingdom and France. The UK is technically a constitutional monarchy, but it functions as a unitary state because all political power is held by Parliament. The other countries in this confederation have their own governments, but they cannot enact laws that would impact any other part of the UK. In France, the central government exercises total control over all of the local political subdivisions.

Even though it is the most common form of governing found in the world today, there are still several pros and cons of a unitary government to consider.

List of the Pros of a Unitary Government

1. It creates less confusion over the governing process for the average citizen.
In the United States, the average person is subject to the laws of four different co-equal governing bodies simultaneously. If you decide to travel to a different town in a neighboring county, then you’re still subject to your own local laws in some situations, while also being required to follow what is expected in that other community. You’re also bound by the different state laws – if you buy legal recreational marijuana in Washington State, you can’t take it to a location where it is illegal to have it in your possession.

The advantage of the unitary government is that this confusion disappears. Instead of having multiple layers of bureaucracy to navigate, you have a clear set of expectations to follow. That may provide some inconvenience at times, but it can also reduce the risk of an unknown violation of the law.

2. This government structure can respond quickly to emergency situations.
The structure of the unitary government means that every decision is made by the central governing body. This process saves time during an emergency situation because there are not multiple layers of bureaucracy to navigate so that resources can get to where they need to go. Whenever an unexpected situation arises, whether it is from a natural disaster or a declaration of war, the government can respond with better accuracy and more speed domestically or overseas because one decision instead of four or more needs to be made.

3. Unitary governments are usually cheaper to run.
Because you are not contending with multiple layers of bureaucracy under the unitary style, there are fewer administrative costs to manage with this centralized government. It provides a smaller structure to the overall state of the nation, potentially reducing the tax burden on households without creating a reduction in the access to services that they require. This efficiency makes it possible to create stronger safety nets for those who are out of work for an extended time or have disabilities which keep them out of the labor force.

4. It is a smaller form of government.
Local services are still a priority for a unitary form of government. The only difference is how communities are able to access this resource. Instead of working with local governing officials, the centralized state will send a delegate to oversee the needs of each community. That is how France structures it’s form of government.

There are almost 1,000 local political subdivisions that they call “Departments” in the country. Each one is headed by and administrative prefect who was appointed into the position from the central government. Each regional department exists to implement the directives that the central government issues on a regular basis.

5. There is less complexity in the legal system of a unitary government.
In the United States, the constitution specifically reserved some of the powers of governing to the federal government. Other powers are then granted to the collective states, while a handful of responsibilities are shared by both. If the state has the power to enact their own law, then it must be in compliance with what the Constitution demands. The distribution of power is often a source of debate because disputes over the rights of each state can arise, requiring the judicial system to step in to sour things out. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide which powers go where, which is not an element found in the unitary government.

6. A unitary system of governing can replicate federated states.
Although the unitary government is centralized and makes decisions through authoritarian processes more often than not, this structure can be designed in such a way that it replicates the style of a federated state. Instead of a local government, a unitary system will place a delegate, ambassador, or someone in a similar position to administer local resources. People can speak to the officials at their local office to voice their concerns about local matters. Then the state representatives can communicate these issues to the governing body to ensure that enough attention is given to the problem.

7. Unitarian governments work to create a system of unity.
The whole purpose of a correctly-structure unitary government is to create common ground. Instead of dividing a person’s loyalties between the state and the national government, everyone is placed in a position where they work to support one another. There are no overlapping districts, issues with gerrymandering, or political polarization because everything operates through the central system. Even when there are multiple elections held each year to sort out national representation, the results are a direct reflection of the diversity found in society. Working with a federate system, especially one with only two parties, creates more of a system of compromise instead.

List of the Cons of a Unitary Government

1. A unitary government can be lacking in infrastructure.
Although it is possible for a unitary government to make decisions quickly, the structure can lack in the infrastructure it needs to implement the choices it makes. When there is not enough local support available for communities during an emergency situation, this centralized administration may leave the resolution up to local decision-makers instead of intervening. Since this delegation may not include the power to make needed changes to protect people, the absence of an independent local government can sometimes cause more harm than good.

2. It is a structure that can ignore local needs.
The benefit of having a government at the local, county, and state level is that it can concentrate on local needs without interfering on the national level. The federal government in the United States worries about providing defense, managing transportation networks, and providing resources for those who lack socioeconomic access. Local governments can then focus on their micro-economy, create solutions for needs that occur in their community, and support the national government with their actions simultaneously.

Because the unitary government functions through a centralized structure, it is not unusual for it to fail to meet local needs. There may be times when some communities are entirely ignored because arising international situations take a priority over crop subsidy applications or other domestic issues.

3. This governing structure can encourage an abuse of power.
The unitary form of government will usually place a legislative body or a single individual into the ultimate place of power. These people or governing agencies will hold almost every decision-making responsibility once they are put into office. When we take a look back through the stories of history, the pages are quick to show that when power is held by only a few or just one, then it is abused far too easily.

This disadvantage is the precise reason why the United States created a federated state instead. Instead of having one form of centralized power, there is a complete system of checks and balances to use that provide more equality in the governing process.

4. Manipulation can occur quite easily in a unitary government.
Although a unitary government can improve efficiencies because there is a lack of bureaucracy, the structure also makes it possible for individuals in the government to manipulate the system. When someone in power decides to pursue more wealth or governing opportunities for themselves, then there are very few ways to stop that activity. By creating a system which offers a chance to manipulate the system for personal needs, the majority of the population must pay for the boost in power and wealth that one person receives.

5. It is a governing structure that will protect the central body first.
Because the goal of a government is self-preservation, the various “arms” that work at the local level are usually the first resources cut when they’re in budgetary issues. The needs of at the national level will always outweigh what local needs are with this government. That means the decisions it makes are typically based on its own survival first instead of taking the interests of the population under consideration. In severe circumstances, it can even lead to local communities becoming ungoverned with a lack of resource access, even though they are still expected to pledge support to the government who isn’t supporting them.

6. Many unitary governments do not allow areas of any autonomy.
When there is a unitary government which offers no degree of autonomy to the areas under its control, then the sub-national regions are not allowed to decide their own laws at any time. Examples of this form of governing are currently found in Norway, Ireland, and Romania. Even where the government permits the presence of sub-national governments in this structure, there is not a sharing of power. Their right to existence is at the leisure of the overall government, and the authority of these divisions can change at any time.

7. The purpose of the unitary government is to have the few control the many.
People are just as patriotic under a unitary system of government as they are with a federal system. The disadvantage of the centralized state is that there are fewer opportunities to get involved with the legislative process. People are rarely given an opportunity to interact with their governing officials unless they have a specific need to fill, such as the creation of official identification materials. If there is a shift in policy that takes rights away from select groups of people, there might not be anything that the general population can do to stop that process from happening.

8. It can also have a slower national response in localized emergencies.
The decision-making process of a unitary government may be fast, but the design of their resources means that the response can be very slow. Every authorization for assistance must come through the centralized government. That means there are times when there is more bureaucracy to navigate instead of less since a federated state could immediate dispatch assistance, like how a governor can send out the National Guard to provide support.

9. Unitary governments can run into a lot of bloating.
If a government switches from a federated system to this one, the benefits often shine brightly at first. It feels like everything begins to move at a more rapid pace. Then the bloating begins to happen in the government. Because it must suddenly become everything to everyone, the processes can get significantly bogged down. The bureaucracy increases because every authorization requires a review from a central official. That can mean it will take even more time to get things done, even if everyone is in agreement that a legislative change is necessary.

10. This structure can artificially shape the discussions of society.
A unitary government can decide at its leisure what is legal or illegal in society. If someone with enough power decides that their political opponents are a threat, then they can pass laws which allow them to be imprisoned for what they have done. The majority typically rules at the expense of the minority in this situation, only granting rights to people when it suits their best interests. This process artificially shapes what happens in society because blogs, social media, and even face-to-face conversations might be monitored to see if something “harmful” to the government is said.

Conclusion of the Unitary Government Pros and Cons

A unitary government is the most common form of governing found on our planet today. There are several advantages to consider with this process which occur mostly due to the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of this structure. Instead of following multiple laws simultaneously, the general population is asked to follow one specific set of regulations instead. This process limits confusion and bureaucracy.

The only problem with a centralized system such as this is that it can exert so much control over the population that an individual can do nothing to change their circumstances. A unitary government can work to control every aspect of life for the people it governs. That includes how the financial markets work, what rights people have with their daily interactions, and who receives the majority of the monetary benefits in society.

The pros and cons of a unitary government work to balance the needs of a nation with what a community requires for dialing living. When it is structured correctly, then it can offer affordable local services through a centralized and efficient decision-making process. It can also become the foundation for some of the most oppressive societies that our planet has ever seen.

17 Advantages and Disadvantages of a Unitary Government

By definition, it is a system of governing where virtually all of the power is located within a centralized government structure. The government itself rules as a single entity. It has the authority to delegate certain powers to certain people or locations without losing the authority to override the delegated authority at any time.

It is able to rule over an entire society because it has the authority to create or remove divisions that are necessary at any given time. Unless specifically granted, no one has the authority to challenge the creation or removal of any division, nor are they allowed to challenge the overall authority of the government itself.

A unitary government is one of the most common ruling structures that humanity utilizes. As of 2018, more than 150 different countries use some form of a unitary government at some level.

There are many advantages and disadvantages of a unitary government to consider. Here are some of the most important key points.

List of the Advantages of a Unitary Government

1. Unitary governments can easily replicate.

Because the government is centralized in a unitary structure, it can place satellites at virtually any location very quickly. This makes it possible for every citizen to have access to government resources. At the same time, the actual authority of the government is maintained without difficulty because the local satellite has the exact same authority as the centralized location. This creates infrastructure, which creates stability, and that makes it possible for the government to fulfill its obligations to its people.

2. Unitary governments also create societal unity.

There are fewer pockets of political polarization that can be found in a unitary government structure compared to other forms of government. That is because all government is essentially the same, no matter where an individual’s specific location may be. This is very different than the current structure of the U.S. government, which may have local, county, state, and national governments all trying to work simultaneously with one another. Being loyal to 4 different governments is a very different process from being loyal to one centralized form of government.

3. It encourages the government to be smaller instead of larger.

Even with satellites branching out from it, a government based on unitary standards tends to be smaller and more consolidated that other forms of governing. This is possible because more authority is placed within specific structures, politicians, or groups. Because there are fewer levels of bureaucracy that must be navigated, the government is able to move faster when a response is needed. Not only does this offer cost-savings for taxpayers, it also makes it possible for people to manage the direction of their own fate without feeling like their government is trying to micro-manage them every day.

4. Costs can be instantly limited or expanded as needed.

Because the central government has the authority to create or rescind at a moment’s notice, it becomes possible to operate on a balanced budget at all times. This government can increase expenditures immediately when resources are needed, such as during a natural disaster response. It can also decrease expenditures immediately to ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent without the creation of deficits. Fewer levels of government create lower costs as well.

5. It is a form of government that is highly responsive.

Because power is consolidated centrally, there are fewer barriers in place for a fast response with a unitary government. If the government feels like it needs to be present at a specific location, then it can immediately insert the infrastructure that is required. The government can even authorize someone on the ground to be the designated government representative, who would have the same overall powers as the regular government when tasks must be completed. If a threat occurs or there is some sort of disaster that must be managed, this type of structure is one of the fastest and most efficient that there is.

6. Regulations and laws are standardized.

In the United States, there is a patchwork of laws, regulations, and standards that must be followed based on a person’s geographic location. This system goes away under a unitary form of government. Regulations become standardized across the entire country. Everyone follows the same laws. What is legal or illegal is clearly defined. If a unitary government legalized recreational marijuana possession, for example, you could travel from Colorado to Nebraska without concern.

7. It eliminates the need of a local or regional legislature.

The cost of local and county governments vary across the United States. State governments spend an average of $2 trillion each year, through taxpayer funding, to provide local resource access without the U.S. government helping out. In a unitary government structure, these resources could be put toward other needs, such as reduced college tuition costs, subsidized healthcare costs, or anything else the centralized government deems to be necessary for the overall greater good of society.

List of the Disadvantages of a Unitary Government

1. A unitary government is essentially an oligarchy.

A unitary system of government consolidates all of its power within a handful of individuals. There may be a specific leader, such as a President or a Prime Minister. There may also be elected officials, such as a senator or a representative. At the end of the day, however, the average person has very little influence on what happens to their society. They can write or talk to politicians. Still, at the end of the day, it is the politician making the decision and not the individual.

2. Everything is centralized in a unitary government, without exception.

It can be advantageous to have certain governing elements be centralized, but a unitary government centralizes everything. That includes banking and financial markets. Unless someone has wealth access or has talents or skills that can earn them that access, the unitary government is able to maintain power and control by limiting who can access wealth in that society. They can tax people, refuse to tax certain businesses, or place specific requirements on certain careers that can make it difficult for the average person to build wealth over time.

3. It is a government system that gives a lot of power to a few people or one individual.

A centralized government has an enormous amount of power. Societal decisions are made on a daily basis. When that power is consolidated into a single individual, it becomes possible to manipulate this system of government for personal gain. That is why the unitary government structure is the most common form of government to transition into a dictatorship. There is so much time and money invested into the structure of the government that allowing one person to dictate what happens is seen as more valuable than having freedom of choice.

4. Unitary governments can create pockets of isolation.

Because the power is centrally assigned, there must be access to a government satellite for every community at some level. Without access, there is no actual government. That can be advantageous if the government is abusive, though it is a definite negative for a community that is lacking resources and has no government access simultaneously. In many instances, governing under a unitary format becomes an exercise in survival instead of it being an exercise in forward progress.

5. It can also be ignorant about local concerns or problems.

The unitary government structure takes a macro-view of society. Governing, however, needs to happen on macro- and micro-levels. Unless the government is active through a satellite in local communities, it will have little awareness of what the population of that community requires. Or worse – local concerns are set aside because the government feels that other threats are of a higher priority. Even if self-governing is encouraged, local communities struggle to access the resources they need when a centralized government is operational.

6. Centralized governments are easy to manipulate.

There are advantages to a centralized structure, like a reduction in bureaucracy. Removing bureaucratic barriers does have some disadvantages to think about. For starters, there are fewer checks and balances in place. That means someone with enough savvy and wit can manipulate the government to prioritize their personal benefits. It can allow people to pursue more power for themselves. It can lead to a society where everyone feels like they must manipulate the government just to have their basic needs met. Instead of looking out for others, the focus of society becomes about survival.

7. There really isn’t any official infrastructure.

The response of a unitary government, in theory, should be faster than other forms of governing. In reality, things are very different. Centralized governments may have satellites available to them, but they do not have formalized structures where benefits or supplies can be physically managed. That means the overall response to a crisis situation is typically slower with this form of government. There is an underlying attitude that people are expected to take care of themselves first and then access the government’s benefits only if they have exhausted every other option.

8. It can place an emphasis on foreign issues over domestic issues.

The overall focus of a unitary government is based on what is good for the overall society. That means foreign matters typically hold a priority over local issues. Unitary governments often have a priority for peace, but that comes from a border-to-border perspective. The poorer classes in this government structure tend to suffer, especially without access to their government in rural areas, and that can make it difficult to survive. Government responses are necessary in this type of system and they just aren’t provided 100% of the time.

9. Unitary governments ignore local cultural differences.

What is good for the residents of California may not be good for the residents of Texas. Regional differences are often suppressed or ignored in a unitary government because there is a desire to create autonomy. Everyone is treated “the same,” but there is no individualization present. Everyone is expected to follow the same expectations, no matter what their local culture or ethnic traditions may be. Over time, this can increase the calls to secede from the government when needs are continually suppressed.

10. There are fewer opportunities to try new ideas.

Unitary governments tend to direct traffic using methods that are “tried and true.” There is little room for innovation or progress with new policies or procedures because the government exists in a consolidated manner. There are relatively few opportunities to experiment with a new idea to see if it could work better because such an action would disrupt the autonomy that is so highly desired.

The advantages and disadvantages of a unitary government are dependent upon the people who hold power within it structures. Leaders who are honorable and honest and help their country and society move forward quickly and with high levels of innovation. Leaders without those qualities may choose to consolidate their power at the expense of the population, transforming the government into more of a dictatorship.

In unitary states, the central government may create (or abolish) administrative divisions (sub-national units). [1] Such units exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate. Although political power may be delegated through devolution to regional or local governments by statute, the central government may abrogate the acts of devolved governments or curtail (or expand) their powers. A large majority of the world's states (166 of the 193 UN member states) have a unitary system of government. [2]

In federations, the provincial/regional governments share powers with the central government as equal actors through a written constitution, to which the consent of both is required to make amendments. This means that the sub-national units have a right of existence and powers that cannot be unilaterally changed by the central government. [3]

Devolution within a unitary state, like federalism, may be symmetrical, with all sub-national units having the same powers and status, or asymmetric, with sub-national units varying in their powers and status. Many unitary states have no areas possessing a degree of autonomy. [4] In such countries, sub-national regions cannot decide their own laws. Examples are Romania, Ireland and Norway. Svalbard has even less autonomy than the mainland. It is directly controlled by the government and has no local rule.

Unitary republics Edit

  • Afghanistan
  • Albania
  • Algeria
  • Angola
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bangladesh
  • Belarus
  • Benin
  • Bolivia
  • Botswana
  • Bulgaria
  • Burkina Faso
  • Burundi
  • Cameroon
  • Cape Verde
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Chile
  • People's Republic of China[5]
  • Republic of China (limited recognition)
  • Colombia
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Republic of the Congo
  • Costa Rica
  • Croatia
  • Cuba
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Djibouti
  • Dominica
  • Dominican Republic
  • East Timor
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • El Salvador
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Eritrea
  • Estonia
  • Fiji
  • Finland
  • France
  • Gabon
  • Gambia
  • Georgia
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Guatemala
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Ivory Coast
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kenya
  • Kiribati
  • North Korea
  • South Korea
  • Kosovo
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Laos
  • Latvia
  • Lebanon
  • Liberia
  • Libya
  • Lithuania
  • Madagascar
  • Malawi
  • Maldives
  • Mali
  • Malta
  • Marshall Islands
  • Mauritania
  • Mauritius
  • Moldova
  • Mongolia
  • Montenegro
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Namibia
  • Nauru
  • Nicaragua
  • Niger
  • North Macedonia
  • Palau
  • Palestine (limited recognition)
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Rwanda
  • Samoa
  • San Marino
  • São Tomé and Príncipe
  • Senegal
  • Serbia
  • Seychelles
  • Sierra Leone
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Somaliland (not recognised)
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • Suriname
  • Syria
  • Tajikistan
  • Tanzania
  • Togo
  • Transnistria
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • Ukraine
  • Uruguay
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vanuatu
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe

Unitary monarchies Edit

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an example of a unitary state. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a degree of autonomous devolved power, but such power is delegated by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which may enact laws unilaterally altering or abolishing devolution (England does not have any devolved power). Similarly in the Kingdom of Spain, the devolved powers are delegated through the central government.

Deconcentration and Decentralization :-

As stated above, unitary government is not necessarily at the same time centralized government, although it is always such in large part. In France, for example, where the system of government is unitary in the sense that all final governing authority centers in and radiates from the central government at Paris, the effect has been attenuated by a process of deconcentration and to some extent also by a process of decentralization.

Through the process of deconcentration the active administration of many affairs has been shifted from the central government at Paris to its representatives and, agents in the departments, arrondissements, and communes (the prefects, sub-prefects, mayors, commissioners of police, etc) The effect has thus been to relieve the congestion at Paris and to facilitate the work of administration throughout the local areas.

But all such officials and agents (except the mayors) are appointed by the central government at Paris and are (including even the mayors when acting as agents of the central government) controlled and directed from Paris. To this extent the government of France is centralized.

Through the process of decentralization a limited degree of local self government has been ,granted. Thus, by act of parliament, popularly elected councils have been established in the departments, arrondissements, and communes and each communal council chooses a mayor.

The powers of the local authorities, however, are much restricted and they are subject to a large degree of central administrative control (latutelle administrative). Such local autonomy as has been granted may at any time be further restricted or totally withdrawn by the parliament which granted it.

It thus happens that the government of France, so far as the ultimate source of legislative and administrative authority is concerned, is completely centralized and so far as the actual administration is concerned it is largely so. With varying differences of degree, the governments of other European countries, except the few that are federal in form, are of the same type.

What is a Unitary System? (with pictures)

A unitary system is a form of government in which authority is concentrated in the central government. Local governments, such as those of regions or cities, are under the control of that central authority. They have only those powers granted to them, and the central government may alter or abolish local authorities at will. This distinguishes this type of system from the government of a federal state, in which the federation's constituent units themselves have at least some attributes of a sovereign state in their own right that the federal government must respect, and from confederations, in which sovereign states voluntarily delegate certain powers to a supranational organization.

This system is the world's most common form of government, and it appears in both democratic and nondemocratic countries. Most European nations have unitary governments — with the exceptions of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria and Russia — as do most of Africa and Asia. Most governments based on the Westminster system are unitary, though Canada, Australia, India and Malaysia have federal constitutions. Present-day monarchies where the monarch still has significant power, such as Liechtenstein, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, usually are unitary, though the United Arab Emirates is a federation ruled by an elective monarchy. Dictatorial and single-party governments almost always are unitary, though the defunct Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was an exception to this.

The central government in a unitary system is responsible for managing national-level concerns, such as foreign relations, national defense and national economic policy. The central ruler or decision-making body controls all aspects of governance, because there are no powers or functions legally reserved to other levels of authority. All areas of government ultimately are under the authority of a single body, so states that have this type of system often have more uniform laws and regulations than federations. The central government also might be responsible for appointing the personnel of lower levels of government, such as regional or provincial governors.

Government decisions in unitary states are not necessarily made by the central authority. Some unitary governments delegate some degree of decision-making power to more regional or local authorities in a process called “devolution,” which often is instituted to accommodate ethnic or linguistic minorities who desire greater autonomy. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament have legislative powers for their respective regions. These bodies were created and their powers defined by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Parliament has the power to abolish these bodies or to increase or decrease their powers as it chooses, and the constituent countries of the United Kingdom have no sovereignty of their own.

Other examples of devolution within such a system include the five autonomous regions of Italy and Papua New Guinea's regional and provincial governments. An extreme case is Spain's system of autonomous communities, which remain officially subordinate to the national government but have extensive powers and account for most government spending. Spain sometimes is regarded as a country that straddles the border between a unitary system and a federal state, because many of the regional governments have more authority within their territories than states in most officially federal forms of government do, and the political entrenchment of the autonomous regions would make it extremely difficult for the central government to abolish them despite officially having the power to do so.


Federations Edit

The component states are in some sense sovereign, insofar as certain powers are reserved to them that may not be exercised by the central government. However, a federation is more than a mere loose alliance of independent states. The component states of a federation usually possess no powers in relation to foreign policy and so enjoy no independent status under international law. However, German Länder have that power, [1] which is beginning to be exercised on a European level.

Some federations are called asymmetric because some states have more autonomy than others. An example of such a federation is Malaysia, in which Sarawak and Sabah agreed to form the federation on different terms and conditions from the states of Peninsular Malaysia.

A federation often emerges from an initial agreement between several separate states. The purpose can be the will to solve mutual problems and to provide for mutual defense or to create a nation-state for an ethnicity spread over several states. The former was the case with the United States and Switzerland. However, as the histories of countries and nations vary, the federalist system of a state can be quite different from these models. Australia, for instance, is unique in that it came into existence as a nation by the democratic vote of the citizens of each state, who voted "yes" in referendums to adopt the Australian Constitution. Brazil, on the other hand, has experienced both the federal and the unitary state during its history. Some present-day states of the Brazilian federation retain borders set during the Portuguese colonization (before the very existence of the Brazilian state), whereas the latest state, Tocantins, was created by the 1988 Constitution for chiefly administrative reasons.

Seven of the top eight largest countries by area are governed as federations.

Unitary states Edit

A unitary state is sometimes one with only a single, centralized, national tier of government. However, unitary states often also include one or more self-governing regions. The difference between a federation and this kind of unitary state is that in a unitary state the autonomous status of self-governing regions exists by the sufferance of the central government, and may be unilaterally revoked. While it is common for a federation to be brought into being by agreement between a number of formally independent states, in a unitary state self-governing regions are often created through a process of devolution, where a formerly centralized state agrees to grant autonomy to a region that was previously entirely subordinate. Thus federations are often established voluntarily from "below" whereas devolution grants self-government from "above".

It is often part of the philosophy of a unitary state that, regardless of the actual status of any of its parts, its entire territory constitutes a single sovereign entity or nation-state, [ citation needed ] and that by virtue of this the central government exercises sovereignty over the whole territory as of right. In a federation, on the other hand, sovereignty is often regarded as residing notionally in the component states, or as being shared between these states and the central government. [ citation needed ]

Confederation Edit

A confederation, in modern political terms, is usually limited to a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states. [2] The closest entity in the world to a confederation at this time is the European Union. While the word confederation was officially used when the Canadian federal system was established in 1867, the term refers only to the process and not the resulting state since Canadian provinces are not sovereign and do not claim to be. In the case of Switzerland, while the country is still known as the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica, Confédération Suisse) this is now a misnomer since the Swiss cantons lost their sovereign status in 1848. [3]

In Belgium, however, the opposite movement is underway. [4] Belgium was founded as a centralized state, after the French model, but has gradually been reformed into a federal state by consecutive constitutional reforms since the 1970s. Moreover, although nominally called a federal state, the country's structure already has a number of confederational traits. At present, there is a growing movement to transform the existing federal state into a looser confederation with two or three constitutive states and/or two special regions. [5]

A confederation is most likely to feature three differences when contrasted with a federation: (1) No real direct powers: many confederal decisions are externalized by member-state legislation (2) Decisions on day-to-day-matters are not taken by simple majority but by special majorities or even by consensus or unanimity (veto for every member) (3) Changes of the constitution, usually a treaty, require unanimity.

Over time these terms acquired distinct connotations leading to the present difference in definition. An example of this is the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles established a national government under what today would be defined as a federal system (albeit with a comparatively weaker federal government). However, Canadians, designed with a stronger central government than the U.S. in the wake of the Civil War of the latter, use the term "Confederation" to refer to the formation or joining, not the structure, of Canada. Legal reforms, court rulings, and political compromises have decentralized Canada in practice since its formation in 1867.

Empire Edit

An empire is a multi-ethnic state, multinational state, or a group of nations with a central government established usually through coercion (on the model of the Roman Empire). An empire often includes self-governing regions, but these will possess autonomy only at the sufferance of the central government. On the other hand, a political entity that is an empire in name, may comprise several partly autonomous kingdoms organised together in a federation, with the empire being ruled over by an emperor or senior king (great king, high king, king of kings. ). One example of this was the German Empire (1871–1918).

Comparison with other systems of autonomy Edit

Federacy Edit

A federacy [6] is where a unitary state incorporates one or more self-governing autonomous areas. It is distinguished from a federation in that the constitutional structure of the state is still unitary, but incorporates federalist principles. Some federacies, notably the Åland Islands, were established through international treaty.

Devolution Edit

A federation differs from a devolved state, such as Indonesia and the United Kingdom, because, in a devolved state, the central government can revoke the independence of the subunits (Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru – Welsh Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly in the case of the UK) without changing the constitution. In some cases, such as the Autonomous communities of Spain, devolution has led to federation in all but name, or "federation without federalism". [7]

Associated states Edit

A federation also differs from an associated state, such as the Federated States of Micronesia (in free association with the United States) and Cook Islands and Niue (which form part of the Realm of New Zealand). There are two kinds of associated states: in case of Micronesia, the association is concluded by a treaty between two sovereign states in the case of the Cook Islands and Niue, the association is concluded by domestic legal arrangements.

Crown dependencies Edit

The relation between the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey in the Channel Islands and the United Kingdom is very similar to a federate relation: the Islands enjoy independence from the United Kingdom, which, via The Crown, takes care of their foreign relations and defense – although the UK Parliament does have overall power to legislate for the dependencies. However, the islands are neither an incorporated part of the United Kingdom nor are they considered to be independent or associated states. The islands do not have a monarch, per se rather in the Isle of Man the British Monarch is, ex officio, Lord of Mann, and in the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey, the British Monarch rules as the Duke of Normandy.

Dependent territories Edit

Dependent territories, such as the British overseas territories, are vested with varying degrees of power some enjoy considerable independence from the sovereign state, which only takes care of their foreign relations and defense. However, they are neither considered to be part of it nor recognized as sovereign or associated states.

De facto federations Edit

The distinction between a federation and a unitary state is often quite ambiguous. A unitary state may closely resemble a federation in structure and, while a central government may possess the theoretical right to revoke the autonomy of a self-governing region, it may be politically difficult for it to do so in practice. The self-governing regions of some unitary states also often enjoy greater autonomy than those of some federations. For these reasons, it is sometimes argued that some modern unitary states are de facto federations. [8]

De facto federations, or quasi-federations, are often termed "regional states".

Spain Edit

Spain is suggested as one possible de facto federation [9] as it grants more self-government to its autonomous communities [10] [11] than are retained by the constituent entities of most federations. [12] For the Spanish parliament to revoke the autonomy of regions such as Galicia, Catalonia or the Basque Country would be a political near-impossibility, though nothing bars it legally. The Spanish parliament has, however, suspended the autonomy of Catalonia in response to the Catalan declaration of independence, in the lead up to the 2017 Catalan election. [13] Additionally, some autonomies such as Navarre or the Basque Country have full control over taxation and spending, transferring a payment to the central government for the common services (military, foreign relations, macroeconomic policy). For example, scholar Enrique Guillén López discusses the "federal nature of Spain's government (a trend that almost no one denies)." [14] Each autonomous community is governed by a Statute of Autonomy (Estatuto de Autonomía) under the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

South Africa Edit

Although South Africa bears some elements of a federal system, such as the allocation of certain powers to provinces, it is nevertheless constitutionally and functionally a unitary state. [15]

European Union Edit

The European Union (EU) is a type of political union or confederation (the assemblage of societies or an association of two or more states into one state). [16] Robert Schuman, the initiator of the European Community system, wrote that a transnational Community like the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community lay midway between an association of States where they retained complete independence and a federation leading to a fusion of States in a super-state. [17] The Founding Fathers of the European Union wrote the Europe Declaration (Charter of the Community) at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 18 April 1951 saying that Europe should be organized on a transnational foundation. They envisaged a structure quite different from a federation called the European Political Community. [ citation needed ]

The EU is a three-pillar structure of the original supranational European Economic Community and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Euratom, plus two largely intergovernmental pillars dealing with External Affairs and Justice and Home Affairs. The EU is therefore not a de jure federation, although some [ who? ] academic observers conclude that after 50 years of institutional evolution since the Treaties of Rome it is becoming one. [18] The European Union possesses attributes of a federal state. However, its central government is far weaker than that of most federations and the individual members are sovereign states under international law, so it is usually characterized as an unprecedented form of supra-national union. The EU has responsibility for important areas such as trade, monetary union, agriculture, fisheries. Nonetheless, EU member states retain the right to act independently in matters of foreign policy and defense, and also enjoy a near-monopoly over other major policy areas such as criminal justice and taxation. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the Member States' right to leave the Union is codified, and the Union operates with more qualified majority voting (rather than unanimity) in many areas. [ citation needed ]

By the signature of this Treaty, the participating Parties give proof of their determination to create the first supranational institution and that thus they are laying the true foundation of an organized Europe. This Europe remains open to all nations. We profoundly hope that other nations will join us in our common endeavor.

Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism.

Those uncomfortable using the "F" word in the EU context should feel free to refer to it as a quasi-federal or federal-like system. Nevertheless, for the purposes of the analysis here, the EU has the necessary attributes of a federal system. It is striking that while many scholars of the EU continue to resist analyzing it as a federation, most contemporary students of federalism view the EU as a federal system. (See, for instance, Bednar, Filippov et al., McKay, Kelemen, Defigueido and Weingast)

A more nuanced view has been given by the German Constitutional Court. [20] Here the EU is defined as 'an association of sovereign national states (Staatenverbund)'. [21] With this view, the European Union resembles more of a confederation.

People's Republic of China Edit

Constitutionally, the power vested in the special administrative regions of the People's Republic is granted from the Central People's Government, through a decision by the National People's Congress. However, there have been certain largely informal grants of power to the provinces, to handle economic affairs and implement national policies, resulting in a system some have termed federalism "with Chinese characteristics". [22]

Myanmar Edit

Constitutionally a unitary state, the political system in Myanmar bears many elements of federalism. Each administrative divisions have its own cabinets and chief ministers, making it more like a federation rather than a unitary state.

Wallis and Futuna Edit

The Overseas collectivity of France of Wallis and Futuna maintained some quasi-federation system. The territory was divided into three traditional chiefdoms Uvea, Sigave, and Alo. The chiefdoms are allowed to have their own legal system which have to be implemented along with French legal system

Certain forms of political and constitutional dispute are common to federations. One issue is that the exact division of power and responsibility between federal and regional governments is often a source of controversy. Often, as is the case with the United States, such conflicts are resolved through the judicial system, which delimits the powers of federal and local governments. The relationship between federal and local courts varies from nation to nation and can be a controversial and complex issue in itself.

Another common issue in federal systems is the conflict between regional and national interests, or between the interests and aspirations of different ethnic groups. In some federations the entire jurisdiction is relatively homogeneous and each constituent state resembles a miniature version of the whole this is known as 'congruent federalism'. On the other hand, incongruent federalism exists where different states or regions possess distinct ethnic groups.

The ability of a federal government to create national institutions that can mediate differences that arise because of linguistic, ethnic, religious, or other regional differences is an important challenge. The inability to meet this challenge may lead to the secession of parts of a federation or to civil war, as occurred in the United States (southern states interpreted slavery under the tenth amendment as a state right, while northern states were against slavery, with a catalysis occurring in the then–Kansas Territory), in Nigeria and in Switzerland. In the case of Malaysia, Singapore was expelled from the federation because of rising racial tension. In some cases, internal conflict may lead a federation to collapse entirely, as occurred the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the Gran Colombia, the United Provinces of Central America, and the West Indies Federation.

The federal government is the common or national government of a federation. A federal government may have distinct powers at various levels authorized or delegated to it by its member states. The structure of federal governments vary. Based on a broad definition of a basic federalism, there are two or more levels of government that exist within an established territory and govern through common institutions with overlapping or shared powers as prescribed by a constitution.

The federal government is the government at the level of the sovereign state. Usual responsibilities of this level of government are maintaining national security and exercising international diplomacy, including the right to sign binding treaties. Basically, a modern federal government, within the limits defined by its constitution, has the power to make laws for the whole country, unlike local governments. As originally written, the United States Constitution was created to limit the federal government from exerting power over the states by enumerating only specific powers. It was further limited by the addition of the Tenth Amendment contained in the Bill of Rights and the Eleventh Amendment. However, later amendments, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment, gave the federal government considerable authority over states.

Federal government within this structure are the government ministries and departments and agencies to which the ministers of government are assigned.

Contemporary Edit

Current federations
Year est. Federation Type
[t 1]
Top-level subdivisions (federated and other) Major federated units Minor units [t 2] (federated or other)
1853 Argentine Republic R Provinces of Argentina 23 provinces 1 autonomous city
1901 Commonwealth of Australia M States and territories of Australia 6 states 3 internal territories (of which 2 are self-governing) and 7 external territories
1920 Republic of Austria R States of Austria 9 states (Länder or Bundesländer) incl. the city-state of Vienna
1993 Kingdom of Belgium M Divisions of Belgium 3 communities, 3 regions 3 communitarian commissions
1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina R Divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2 entities, one of which is itself a federation of 10 cantons 1 district [t 3]
1889 Federative Republic of Brazil R States of Brazil
  1. ^ R = Federal republic M = Federal monarchy.
  2. ^ That is, first-level subdivisions possessing less autonomy than the major federating units.
  3. ^Brčko District is de jure part of both entities, and de facto administered separately from either.
  4. ^ 20 provinces during the Empire of Brazil 1822–89
  5. ^ As an independent Dominion republic declared in 1950
  6. ^ As the Federation of Nigeria republic declared in 1963
  7. ^ As an independent Dominion republic declared in 1956
  8. ^ Declared by the Soviet Russian government. Part of the Soviet Union since 1922, which developed into a highly-centralized one party dictatorship after that. After its breakup, a new Treaty of Federation was signed in 1992.
  9. ^ Three pairs of cantons have less power at federal level than the other 20 cantons, but the same degree of internal autonomy.
  10. ^ The United States Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was drafted in 1787 and was ratified in 1788. The first Congress and President did not take office until March 1789.
  11. ^ Of the 5 territories that are permanently inhabited, all are unincorporated, two are commonwealths and a third is formally unorganized. Of the other 11, one is incorporated and all are unorganized together they form the United States Minor Outlying Islands. The term insular area includes both territories and places with a Compact of Free Association.

Long form titles Edit

    : Germany, Somalia, Nigeria.
  • Federation: Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Malaysia (informal)
  • Republic: Argentina, Austria, India, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan.
  • Others:
    • Bolivarian Republic (Venezuela) (Switzerland) (Australia) (Canada before 1982)
    • Federal Democratic Republic (Ethiopia, Nepal)
    • Federated States (Micronesia)
    • Federative Republic (Brazil)
    • Islamic Republic (Pakistan)
    • Kingdom (Belgium)
    • Union (Comoros)
    • United Emirates (United Arab Emirates)
    • United States (United States, Mexico)
      (since 1998)
  • Canada (since 1982)
  • Defunct Edit

    • Inca Empire (1197–1572)
    • United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves (1815–1825)
    • Hispaniola (1822–1844)
    • Peru–Bolivian Confederation (1836–1839)
    • Confederate States of America (1861–1865)
    • Confederate Ireland (1642–1652)
    • Federal State of Austria (1934–1938)
    • Federal Republic of Cameroon (1961–1972)
    • United Provinces of Central America (1823 – circa 1838)
    • United States of Colombia (1863–1886)
    • Czechoslovak Socialist Republic[28] (1969–1992)
    • Republic of Kenya (1963–1964)
    • Federated Dutch Republic (1581–1795)
    • Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea (1952–1962)
    • French Equatorial Africa (1910–1934)
    • French Indochina (1887–1954)
    • French West Africa (1904–1958)
    • Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) [29]
    • North German Confederation (1867–1871)
    • German Empire (1871–1918)
    • Weimar Republic (1919–1933)
    • German Democratic Republic (1949–1952)
    • Confederation of Madja-as (1200–1569)
    • United States of Indonesia (1949–1950)
    • United Kingdom of Libya (1951–1963)
    • Federated Malay States (1896–1946)
    • Federation of Malaya (1948–1963) [30]
    • Malayan Union (1946–1948)
    • Mali Federation (1959–1960)
    • Mengjiang Autonomous United Government (1937–1945, since 1941 autonomous region of the Reorganized National Government of China)
    • Confederation of New Granada (1858–1863)
    • Republic of China (1912–1928)
    • Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795)
    • Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953–1963)
    • Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1917–1991)
    • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics[31] (1922–1991)
    • Federal Republic of Spain (1873–1874)
    • Syrian Federation (1922–1925)
    • Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville) (1960–1964)
    • Republic of South Africa (1961–1994)
    • Republic of Uganda (1962–1967)
    • United Republic of Tanzania (1964–1965)
    • West Indies Federation (1958–1962)
    • Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia[32] (1943–1992)
    • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992–2003)
    • Netherlands Antilles (1954–2010)

    Some of the proclaimed Arab federations were confederations de facto.

    3. Federalism

    Before the Constitution was written, each state had its own currency. This four pound note from Philadelphia reads, "To Counterfeit is Death."

    Did you ever wonder why you don't need a passport to go from New York to California, but if you were to move from one state to another, you would need a new driver's license? Or why you can use the same currency in all states, but not be subject to the same speed limits? Or why you have to pay both federal and state taxes?

    The maze of national and state regulations results from federalism &mdash the decision made by the Founders to split power between state and national governments. As James Madison explained in the "Federalist Papers," our government is "neither wholly national nor wholly federal."

    Federalism as a System of Government

    In creating a federalist system the founders were reacting to both the British government and the Articles of Confederation. The British government was &mdash and remains &mdash a unitary system , or one in which power is concentrated in a central government. In England, government has traditionally been centralized in London, and even though local governments exist, they generally have only those powers granted them by Parliament. The national government is supreme, and grants or retains powers to and from local governments at its whim.

    The Russian Federation, also known simply as Russia, has a federal government with a variety of partially self-governing autonomous regions, or oblasts. Most of these, such as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, are concentrations of non-Russian ethnic groups.

    The Articles of Confederation represented an opposite form of government, a confederation , which has a weak central government and strong state governments. In a confederation, the state or local government is supreme. The national government only wields powers granted by the states. Most confederations have allowed the local government to nullify a federal law within its own borders.

    Federalism is a compromise meant to eliminate the disadvantages of both systems. In a federal system, power is shared by the national and state governments. The Constitution designates certain powers to be the domain of a central government, and others are specifically reserved to the state governments.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Unitary and Confederal Governments

    AdvantagesLaws may be applied uniformly to allLaws may be made to suit individual needs of the states
    GovernmentEfforts seldom duplicate or contradict themselvesTyranny can be avoided more easily
    Decision-makingFast and efficientGovernment is closer to the people
    DisadvantagesConcentration of power can lead to tyranny

    If the country is large, a distant central government can lose control

    The country has a tendency to split apart

    Although the federal system seems to strike a perfect balance of power between national and local needs, federations still have internal power struggles. Conflicts between national and state governments are common. In the case of the United States, the argument of state vs. federal power was a major underlying factor that led to the Civil War .

    Fewer than thirty modern countries have federal systems today, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Mexico, and the United States. But even though few other countries practice it today, federalism has provided the balance that the United States has needed since 1787.

    The Advantages and Disadvantages of Unitary Government

    What is a unitary government? It is a government which operates through one central unit of power. It is this central entity which decides on what laws to enact, what policies must be followed, and how that all applies to the nation as a whole. It’s a very common form of government utilized in today’s world, but there are certain advantages and disadvantages that come with this type of structure.

    What Are the Advantages of a Unitary Government?

    1. It creates a government which is highly responsive.
    Because there are fewer levels of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make a decision, the government can be more responsive in times of need. Typically only one person or one body within the government is responsible for the decision needed to act, which is a decision made on behalf of the entire country. This is true whether it’s a response to an emergency or adapting to changing economic circumstances.

    2. It inspires patriotism.
    Under a unitary government, the general population is generally more patriotic than in other government structures because each person has at least one thing in common with their neighbors. Decisions are made that affect everyone, so no one typically feels like their neighbor has better chances to pursue happiness than they do.

    3. It can be adapted to operate at local levels.
    Although the key feature of this government structure is a central governing body, that body can be adapted to local needs and concerns with extensions, branches, or other outreach opportunities.

    4. It eliminates duplication.
    Think about the US food stamp allocation process today. Local communities may offer food stamp benefits. A state may offer benefits. Then there are federal programs like SNAP which are also in place. There may be 5+ programs for some households to navigate. Under a unitary government, much of this duplication can be eliminated, ultimately allowing for taxpayer money to be used more effectively.

    5. It offers opportunity.
    Just because there is a unitary government doesn’t mean all opportunities for advancement are eliminated. Public and private sector opportunities exist in this form of government, although unitary governments do typically have higher tax rates on upper levels of income earned and may even have income caps put into place.

    What Are the Disadvantages of a Unitary Government?

    1. It can be difficult to address local issues.
    Some communities typically feel disenfranchised by a unitary government simply because they have no contact with it. Decisions made by the government may be based on a majority need, but certain groups belonging to the minority may receive no benefit. The end result, especially when this disadvantage happens continuously, will always be conflict and that can tear the nation apart.

    2. It can be difficult to receive an answer.
    A unitary government is required to make all operational decisions, so every little issue that comes up every day must be addressed. This often creates a backlog of issues that require decisions, which means communities must wait for a longer period of time to gain access to the answers or resources they need when compared to other government structures.

    3. It can put citizens at a disadvantage.
    Because there is one central unit making decisions on behalf of everyone, it can be very easy to place specific groups of people at a disadvantage to others. Socioeconomic status, racial demographics, or even sexual orientation can become a basis for legal discrimination simply because the government says one group has a priority over another group.

    4. It reduces cultural diversity.
    What the central government says goes under this government structure, so people ultimately lose some of their individuality. Their culture and family history become less important than following the bidding of the unitary government. This can occur in small and subtle ways… like having an approved list of names which parents can use for a newborn, for example.

    5. Checks and balances are not available.
    There’s no one to “watch the watchers” in this form of government, especially if it is adopting socialistic methods. It becomes easy for the government to consolidate power so the people cannot remove officials from office if they disagree with the decisions which are being made.

    A unitary government, when carefully managed, can do great things. It also offers one person or a small group of people a large amount of power that can be tempting to use for one’s own advantage. That’s why each key point must be carefully considered when looking at a government structure such as this.


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