Monday, April 27, 2009

What is Federalism?

I am pleased to present a guest post by Stephanie Barr of Rocket Scientist. This is something you that will help your understanding of our American government, and how it came to be.


Relax Max has asked me to write a blog on what federalism is.  In

concept, this is simple.  Federal, as define by Merriam Webster

[] defines it as a

compact where political units "surrender their individual sovereignty to

a central authority but retain limited residuary powers of government"

and several variations on that theme.  Wikipedia

[] also has a well-defined

description of what a federation is.

In many ways, it's easier to describe what a federation is not.  It is

not a single unit of government, such as a unitary state, with districts

and towns governed and rule by that central government, just as layers

of a hierarchy.  In this case, in a federation, there IS a central

authority, but the governments at the state and county and city level

are all independently operated and elected, rather than run and

appointed at the central level.  

The relative advantage for a federal government relative to a unitary

state is that people in an actual geographic area get to have more

direct say in how their part of the country is run, rather than have

everything, down to the smallest iota, defined at a national level and

imposed down.  For example, hurricane building codes for Florida and the

Texas Gulf Coast aren't imposed on Iowa or even west Texas, where they

aren't necessary and would impose unreasonable burdens on developers.

A relative disadvantage for a federal government relative to a unitary

state is that the law tends to be convoluted and complex and standards

from even adjacent districts can vary widely.  This makes law

professionals essential to do even simple tasks, as they sift through

the various local, state and federal statutes and means that government

services like police or education or social services, can vary widely

depending on where you live.  It also allows for distinct inequality

depending on the relative wealth of some areas and some populations over


A confederation, on the other hand, often has the same structure, but

more of the "central" authority is at the discretion of the states.

States can leave if they choose.  Decisions and changes in the central

government are often dependent on the voting/consensus/even unanimity of the sovereign states.

The advantage of a federation over a confederation is that the central

government can function more expeditiously and simply.  The central

government in a confederacy's central government can readily become like

a paritioner, starved of power except in name, begging and pandering for

power to do ANYTHING.  Depending on the distribution of power, the

advantages of the actual pact between "states" can be worn away or lost.

The advantage is that those in a geographical area have nearly complete

control over their own laws and requirements, their taxes, social

services, etc.  Adverse effects in a different state may have minimal

impact on their own.

The differences, actually between a confederacy and a federation, are

largely a matter of degree.  Often a confederacy has a shared defense,

but usually has individual armies as well.  Confederacies can have

individual monetary systems or share monetary systems, ditto for


So, why give up sovereignty for a federation?

Defense is more effective in a federation (though there's always the

possibility of war that serves on certain areas or interests).  A

uniform set of services can exist to serve all (i.e. post office) and

monetary system can greatly facilitate economic interaction.

In our federation (US), we have a centralized army/navy/defense and the

state governments do not directly control the federal government but

rather individuals from different geographical are elected to serve the

interests of their constituents in the central government.  Single

monetary system, certain independent services.  But the key, in my

opinion, is the Bill of Rights, where certain key "rights" were defined

that no other agency could undo, including the states.  That, in my

opinion, is what set the original federation apart from the different

examples that came before and influenced our constitution.

Note that this is flavored with my own view, so you are free to disagree

with aspects and opinions expressed here.


  1. That oughta learn ya, RM. You pull in a guest blogger and the comments are lousy with those crickets that tell you nobody's home. I feel like Daffy to your Bugs.

    Oh well. I never did aim to be popular.

    (Ack! I'm reverting to Texas drawl!)

  2. One of the things I would eventually like to debate with you (although hardly a new subject) is whether states have the right to leave the union.

    Many people assume that we fought a civil war over that question, and therefore it is settled. But the civil war (I say) did NOT answer that question. It only showed that with enough might, you can make someone do your bidding. In this case, it meant the other club members forced others to stay in their club.

    And yet I have not found in the constitution anything which legally binds states forever. I personally don't believe states SHOULD have this right to leave. At least not without the consent of the other states. But I have never found a prohibition in the constitution, nor do I believe the Civil War really settled the question. At least not the theoretical question.

    This is important to me to resolve, because making states stay against their will undermines my theory that the states are the real sovereigns. Or perhaps not necessarily; if the majority of states voted and they agreed to let one state go, then they would not be giving up their ultimate say-so.


    But my MAIN interest in the federal debate is just how much power the states really meant to give the feds, and how much have the feds simply TAKEN over the years. And, most of all, is it OK with everybody?

  3. Thanks Stephanie this type of post is very informative to those of us who did not have much to do with American history. It is a bit mind boggling sometimes but I will persevere.

  4. I've been thinking about this some more, and I think one of the main improvements (there were several) to the new constitution was that it made it much more difficult for the individual states to "interfere with" or "micromanage" the federal government on lesser issues. In the new constitution, the states have to actually go through the painstaking process of amending the constitution in order to "give and order to" the federal government. This means they have to have much support form other states, and it also means it takes time - time to cool off and shift priorities. The ERA amendment, unnecessary like so many other amendments both passed and failed, is the most recent example that comes to mind. During the time involved two things happened: the fires of indignation went out for the amendment, and the people moved on to other issues they thought had become more important. This was the reasoning also, I think, for having Senators appointed by the states rather than having them be directly elected by the people at large as they are today. That was a sad amendment too, one that we are still living with today.

    I like the idea of having a strong management team with broad powers to get things done and the ability to make on-the-spot timely decisions. I do NOT like them not being more responsible to their stockholders or their board of directors. The states ARE that board of directors who need to be giving constant feedback to the management team with regard to the general direction the "company" needs to move in. The Senators were (and are) that board of directors (intended to be the representatives of the states and not the people directly. But, being elected by popularity rather than their ABILITY to serve their state at large, has made the present day Senate something very different than the original intent of states.

    Today, a congressman is judged by what things he is able to deliver to his home district, and a Senator is judged by what things he is able to bring home to his state at large. I think the original intent of the constitutional framers was more along the lines of both of them going to Washington and telling the federal government what the people, and the states, wanted with respect to the various pressing issues of the day, and, at the same time, notify the federal government what NEW issues needed to be addressed. Is that what is happening today? I think they are still getting business taken care of for their people and their states, much of the time, but Oh! how cumbersome it has become!

  5. I could have sworn I put in some sort of comment on this earlier.

    Must be losing whats left of my mind.



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