The Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism: An Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Federalism: A Mixed Government System
  2. Evolution and Modern Interpretation of Federalism
  3. Advantages of Federalism: Efficiency and Diversity
  4. Case Study: Federalism in the United States
  5. Challenges of Federalism: Uniformity and Accountability
  6. Federalism in Russia: A Work in Progress
  7. Final thoughts

Introduction to Federalism: A Mixed Government System

There are many different types of government in twenty first century politics. Federalism is a mixed method of government based on democratic rules that combines a general government with regional governments in one single political system. The two methods share an equal relationship, and the powers are divided between them equally. There are many different countries that use a federal system of government. It is one of the most practiced political systems in the world. The earliest example of federal countries is those of the United States and the Netherlands. Some scholars argue that the European Union is the pioneer of federalism in a multi-state setting. It is referred to as the federal union of states. History has shown that federal systems can be successful, but that they can also create many problems for a state when things start to go wrong. Many countries continue to lead a successful federal government today, but some have tried and failed. In this essay, I will be exploring both the advantages and disadvantages of the federal system and research countries that have successfully maintained a federal system.

Evolution and Modern Interpretation of Federalism

The modern definition of what is considered a federal state has shifted since federalism was first established. In an article by Ronald L.Watts ‘Typologies of Federalism’, he claims that very few modern federal states meet the criteria of pure federalism. Many modern federal systems have incorporated constitutional ideas and practices that involve unitary elements of government. The United States, which is regarded as the classic model of federalism, has evolved into what some scholars call coercive federalism. German philosopher Immanuel Kant was an advocate of federalism. In his book ‘Political Writings’ he states that “The problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils”. He believed that if an appropriate system of checks and balances was in place, then federal systems would be a success. He also claims that federalism can be used as a safeguarding technique for individual states against war. There are many other scholars who are also advocates for federalism because a federal system holds many advantages and can benefit countries in many ways.

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Advantages of Federalism: Efficiency and Diversity

The most argued advantage of a federal system is that with the powers being divided, the work of the center government is lessened and can therefore devote its full attention on national work. In federal establishments, some rights are given to the central government and the rest to the states or provinces. As a result, the administration of the whole country becomes very efficient. A federal government has also proved to be the best system for the more diverse countries, who home many different cultures, religions and ethnicities, where the establishment of a unitary government is not possible. In these countries' federalism is the only suitable form of government, because it provides the unity required. This also encourages the practice of peaceful political cooperation between different groups of society. Federalism provides the most advantages to the smaller states. Smaller states are less likely to be able to defend themselves against other countries. However, states are included in the federal system during a crisis. For example, the American states could not fend for themselves individually, but as the American federation, they pose a threat. This case is similar for many other countries, like India. Political scientists have argued that a federal system decreases the fear of the majority because it ensures that every element of the government is important, and they can even choose to run their own political affairs if it wants to do so.

Case Study: Federalism in the United States

A country that has successfully used a federal system of government for many years is the United States of America. The constitutional power is divided between the US state governments and the federal government of the United States. Since the US was founded, but more specifically after the American civil war, more of the political power shifted from the individual states toward the national government. But their system of federalism has progressed even more since then. There has been a long road for America to get to its current form of ‘New Federalism’. From the fourth President James Madison being the first to state his support for a federal government to the more recent complications of Donald Trump’s presidency, American federalism has seen many changes. Although federalism has also worked out fine for American politics, the 21st century has seen the state and federal power fluctuate rapidly. Martha Derthick argues in a report for the Rockefeller Institute of Government, that modern federal-state relations in the US is coming more towards centralization. But she also believes that federalism has survived the extremely aggressive presidency of Bush. The federal government increased its powers after Bush under the presidency of Barack Obama and some scholars argue that to a certain extent, the powers of the state governments grew too. According to another report by Thomas Gais for the Rockefeller Institute, Obama's administration had engaged with the most states since the 1960’s. His work relied heavily on the participation of the states, so he felt it was important to keep all aspects of government in loop. The most recent American government of Donald Trump, however, was a lot more complicated and controversial. His executive branch of government failed to act in an appropriate manner during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, despite the federal government always previously being responsible for dealing with national emergencies such as pandemics and natural disasters. Some describe the pandemic as the federal event of the century and most political figures disagree with how Trump acted. The evidence from the way president Trump acted during the Pandemic suggests to political scientists that he was attempting to weaken the role of the federal government. There were many issues relating to how the federal government was run during Trump's term of administration, some of which include his response to the Black Lives Matter movement and his decision to deploy federal troops to protests. However, despite Trumps attempts at increasing presidential power, the laws of the constitution prevented his actions being too damaging. In a 2021 book titled ‘Brookings’ the authors state that “The forces of federalism, especially state attorneys, governors and legislatures, have often undercut Trump’s executive initiatives and reduced their impact”. Although we must consider Trump’s presidency when looking at the success rate of America’s federal system, he made it clear that he had very different goals for his time as president than any other previous president in office. Despite this however, from looking at the history of America’s system of federal government, we can see that although there have been some minor issues the advantages that this system has brought to the country has clearly outweighed the problems it has made. Many people claim that America is the model country of a federal government, because it has been so successful for so long.

Challenges of Federalism: Uniformity and Accountability

Although the US is a positive example of federalism, it has also been a failure for many countries. This proves that there are also many disadvantages to this form of government. This system of government can prevent the uniformity of laws and policies for those countries. This is because every federal unit of government remains independent and can adopt any policy or law that they desire. The federal governing body cannot interfere in the affairs of each individual unit so there are many different laws in place for each unit. In some cases, this can be considered an advantage, but ultimately it causes problems between federal units as they all have different policies in place. Although the distribution of powers is one of the most attractive things about a federal system, the method used to distribute those powers doesn’t always work out perfectly. Things are constantly changing in the world of politics, so what is of local interest one day, can become of national importance tomorrow. But unless the constitution is amended, which has been done previously but is very difficult to do, the matter is extremely hard to resolve. As a result of this there are some instances where the federal government can intervene in state affairs, but it is limited. Another problem relating to this is that it leads to a lack of accountability when policies fail. The overlap of the boundaries among national and state governments makes it difficult to assign blame when things go wrong. Therefore, a federal system can instigate numerous problems for a country and its governing body.

Federalism in Russia: A Work in Progress

A country that uses a more controversial system of federalism is Russia. The Russian Federation was the largest nation to emerge from the breakup of The Soviet Union in December 1991, which makes it one of the more recent countries to develop into federalism. Soviet Federalism evolved to what it is today as a result of two conflicting tendencies: The growing national separatism and the Russian tradition of a centralized, unitary state. Following the constitutional crisis of 1993, Russia adopted a new constitution via a referendum. In an article for the ‘Routledge Handbook of Regionalism and Federalism’ titled ‘Russia’, the Russian case of federalism is described as a political process that isn't very mature. The Scholars believe that Russian federalism has failed to develop in a classic form. Essentially, the country is described as a federal presidential republic. The reason for this is because unlike many other federal countries, the Russian constitution provides strong powers to the president individually. The president has the authority to issue decrees that have the force of law, without a legislative review. The first president of the new Russia was Boris Yelsin who was elected in 1991 and hand-picked his successor Vladimir Putin. Putin was elected for his first term in 2000 and his second term in 2004. The 1993 constitution states that a president is elected for a four-year term. In 2008, this was amended so that a president serves a six-year term and is eligible to re-run for a second term but cannot run for a third term consecutively. This meant that Putin could not be re-elected in 2008, but he ran for president again in 2012. This election was widely criticized as the opposition candidates were weak, the media was compliant with Putin and there were multiple electoral irregularities. Despite this, Putin was re-elected again in 2018. Usually, the Prime minister, who is appointed by the President, is first in line to presidency. Historically the prime minister advances to president and then that’s their service done. However, this changed in 2008 when Putin stepped down from president- as he was required to, and became Prime Minister, then once again became President. Overall, Putin will have served two four-year terms and two six-year terms as president. Constitutionally, he should step down in 2024, but he has tabled constitutional changes which will allow him to remain as president until 2036. It is very clear that Russia’s system of federalism is still a work in progress with Vladimir Putin remaining a massive influence on how the power is exercised. Scholars describe the current political system in Russia as more of a managed democracy, with some even referring to it as ‘Putinism’. It is important to consider all aspects of Putin’s presidency as he has been in power for most of the time that Russia has been a federal country. It's obvious that the situation in Russia is far from normal federalism and is rather corrupt, but it is officially still the Russian Federation.

If we compare the federal government systems of both the United States of American and the Russian Federation, it is clear to see which one is working more successfully. America, as previously described, is the model of a successful federation which is why scholars often compare the other federations to this system. After reviewing each system, its comprehensible that they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where America has had time to trial and error aspects of a federal government and has found the best way to run, Russia seems to still be in the stage of development as they are a more recent federal country. However, many political scientists argue that until Putin is out of power Russia will not get much further in becoming a fully federal country, like the USA, as he is limiting the power of the state and building up the powers of the president. America has done many things to avoid this happening there. One main element that makes the American federal system more advanced than the Russian system is the instability of Russian presidencies. The American presidential role is part of the stable constitutional system that protects the rights of the people. Whereas Russia is much more likely to become a dictatorship. A study showed that culturally, the Russian people feel vulnerable if they do not have a strong leader or single party rule. So, if we compare the presidential element of each country, Russia compares quite badly to America. Overall, both countries take advantage of the federal laws set out in their constitutions and use them in the best way, such as sharing the responsibilities and powers away from individuals and over to states. Even though each country can be defined as federal, there systems are still quite different.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, there are many advantages and disadvantages to a federal system of government. Statistics show that federalism is usually more successful in larger countries. Although it is one of the most used regimes of government, it can still cause several problems, especially for countries transitioning to federalism from another form of government. An example of this as previously mentioned is Russia who are still in the young years of federalism and their system was actually called immature by the authors of the ‘Routledge Handbook of Regionalism and Federalism’. However, the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages in the cases of both America and Russia. Referring to Immanual Kants thoughts from ‘Political Writings’, if a legit system is in place, federalism will be a success. Therefore, it can be argued that federalism is one of the most successful forms of modern government.

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