Federalism is a widely accepted system of government in North American cultures. To many North Americans it seems to be the obvious choice for all world governments, but this is not the case. In all honesty, federalism is a fairly unique form of government. Out of approximately two hundred nations on the earth one hundred and eighty states practice unitary forms of government, leaving only twenty or so as federal nations (Winchester, 1999). Unitary forms of government consist of only one level of government. These are very popular in modern day politics as they are much cheaper to run and to maintain, while still fitting the needs of most countries. Examples of countries which use unitary governments include France, The United Kingdom, and Italy. Also in a smaller, homogeneous country such as France there is little need for a second level of government. Federalism tends to be the products of states with large land masses, diverse populations and / or regional governments which were reluctant to join in confederation. Federalism is defined as a political organization in which the activities of the government are divided between regional governments and a federal government (Jackson, 221). The division of activities is often referred to as a division of powers between a central government and regional governments. The division of powers is made possible through a written constitution, which stipulates which level of government will receive which power. In Canada these powers are divided between provincial powers and federal powers. Provincial powers are solely the responsibility of the province as outlined in the constitution. Some examples of provincial powers include health care, welfare, and education. Federal powers are the responsibility of Ottawa. They include foreign affairs, currency, and military control, etc.
Federalism has a rich and influential history in North America as well as in many other parts of the world. While it is widely believed that federalism as a principle was the brainchild of the founding fathers of the United States of America, reference to federalism in an unrefined form was documented in the early 1600s. It was in this time period that the Jewish convenant in response to social and religious persecution created a new doctrine of federal theology based on the idea of a mutual obligation between the ruler and the ruled (Wijemanne, 1999). Essentially this was the very first division of powers, and shared control over an area by two levels of government, all be it in a very crude form.A more contemporary and widely accepted approach regarding the birth of federalism is that it was essentially created with the Declaration of Independence and the gradual confederation of the American states in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The United States fits the mold most common with Federal states. Federalism was first implemented in the United States because America contained a large plot of land which was filled with a very diverse population. Typically the only way to unite a heterogeneous population is through a federal government because it is the only way to articulate and protect regional interests. As the United States evolved so did federalism as an ideology and as a political practice. Constant amendments to the constitution created the ever evolving division of power. As federalism became more accepted it constantly was reformed as it passed through a number of stages inherent to the time period. The first stage was the confederal stage. At this early point in time the states retained sovereign power, while the weak national government was at their whim. The confederal stage was present at the time of the Declaration of Independence. As time progressed the states developed powers within a certain sphere, while the national government developed powers contained within a different sphere. Gradually the states gave up more and more of their power to the federal level. This resulted in the dual federalism period. In the first portion of this period, from 1789 1861 the national level became the sovereign and the spheres became equal in power (Walker, 1995). The next stage in the progression of federalism is known as cooperative federalism. In this phase the emphasis was placed on shared functions and providing services for tax payers. This stage lasted for almost one hundred years, from 1861 until 1960. Following cooperative federalism was creative federalism. Creative federalism is based on intergovernmental fiscal transfers (Walker, 1995), or as they are commonly known: transfer payments. Transfer payments are payments from the national government to the states or provinces to pay for provincially run programs such as health care. Creative federalism lasted for twenty years from 1960 to 1980. The final stage of federalism, and the stage we are presently in, is known as cooptive federalism. Cooptive federalism is based on the devolution and deregulation of government. This has been a time riddled with cut backs and spending cuts. Also this is a time period where the deficit has dominated and controlled governments operations.
Federal governments have been traditional, fairly successful entities. As previously discussed there are many reasons why countries look to centralized federal government systems. Federal governments allow for an overmind of values to be imposed upon a large or diverse population, while at the same time allowing for unique regional expression. Another reason to promote federalism is due to the economic benefits enjoyed by larger states. The larger and more populated the state is, the more power it will have to wield on the world market, which will increase the prosperity of the state. Other inherent benefits of unification include the creation of a powerful centralized armed forces which helps for defense purposes, and also federalism will help prevent an all powerful central government, such as the government in Hitlers Germany. Another advantage to federalism is its great flexibility with regards to asymmetrical federalism. Asymmetrical federalism allows certain regions to take on more responsibility if they want it. It is characterized as the uneven distribution of powers between the regional governments which allows some regional governments greater autonomy should they chose to do so (Federalism, 1999). This allows flexibility in accommodating regions with different needs. Asymmetrical governments can be contrasted by symmetrical federal governments which believe in an equal division of powers. Symmetrical governments can be further divided into two categories. They are interstate and intrastate governments. In interstate governments regional interests are left to be ruled upon by regional governments, while in the intrastate system regional interests are articulated by regional representatives at the federal level.
While federalism is generally a good system there are many problems associated with centralizing government. One major concern is with the distribution of powers between the federal and provincial levels of the government. Disputes are certain to arise from this area because there will always be overlapping of jurisdictions to some degree. The overlapping of jurisdictions result in concurrent powers which are held by both levels of government. An example of a concurrent power in Canada are the powers relating to the issue of taxation or to the issue of transportation. Consequently there must be a forum for constitutional interpretation to help resolve these disputes as they arise. The forum for constitutional amendment in Canada is the Supreme Court of Canada.
Another concern is with the amount of power the state wields in comparison to the amount of power the federal government has. This has resulted in a progression into two types of federal governments. The first type is centralized federal government. This system is characterized by the domination of the federal government over the regional government. An example of this system is the government of Canada. The second branch of federalism is decentralized federalism which is marked by the domination of the regional government over the federal government. An example of this system is the United States government. The key to a successful federal government is finding the right balance of power between the federal and regional branches of government. If the central government becomes too powerful it will result in a government that is not very flexible and insensitive to regional interests. If the opposite were to happen and the government were to become too decentralized the nation will become fragmented into small, independent states and may cease to exist as a nation. Clearly there is a need for a balance of power between the federal government and regional government, but what the balance is depends on the state along with its origins and specific ideologies. Another issue that develops is the placement of residual powers. Residual powers are powers and responsibilities not specified to a distinct level of government (federal or regional) in the constitution. In Canada all residual powers go to the federal government, in contrast, in the American system of government all residual powers go to the states. This further reinforces the theory that Canada practices centralized federalism, while the Americans use decentralized federalism.
While federalism is not the choice of most countries, most of the industrialized and developed nation prefers the system. In fact, 50% of the worlds population resides in federal states, while 51% of the worlds land mass is inclosed in federal states (Forbes, 227). It is obvious by these numbers that the small number of federal states exercise a huge amount of influence on the rest of the world. In conclusion federalism is based on dual representation, first at the regional level, and then again at the federal level. It is through this dual system that the nation can achieve nationalism by controlling some powers at the national level, and the nation can enforce regional representation by having local government to look after regional issues.
Forbes, H.D. Canadian Political Thought, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Jackson, Robert J., Doreen Jackson, Political Science: Comperative and World Politics, third ed., Scarborough, Ontario, Prentice Hall, 1997.
Marchak, Patricia M., Ideological Perspectives on Canada, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975.
Wijemanne, Adrian, Nationalism, Federalism, and Realism, 1997. http://www.eng.carleton.ca/-/sutha/analysis/fed_nat.html
Winchester, David, Constitutionalism Lecture, November 21, 1999
Diamon and Wright, History of US federalism1996 http://w3.satelin.net/-kala/fed/history/html