Federalism vs Unitary system


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Federalism refers to a constitutional arrangement whereby power is divided and shared between two levels of government; central government which deals with nationwide responsibilities and regional government whichrepresents the local or regional people and is known as a state or province. In this system the national government has a responsibility on some areas of the governance such as national security, economic policy as well as foreign policy. The regional governments have the authority to determine issues such as land usage, traffic rules as well as education.   A unitary system on the other hand refers to a system that has an ultimate authority bestowed on the central government and the local and regional government fall under it. The central government determines all issues, no regional government is independent and also the former can abolish or alter the latter as and when it sees fit (Center for Civic Education (Calif.), p. 101)

Comparison of federalism with unitary system

Various debates have been going on in an attempt to find out which system is better than the other. However both of them have strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation at hand. This can be explained as follows: first promoting democracy over expansive areas;whereby federalism seems to be doing better than unitary system. Through the regional government the locals can participate in decision making hence they have a larger control of their affairs. This is opposed to a unitary system where law is made by the central government are passed down to the regional governments for implementation. Therefore the locals are rarely involved(Center for Civic Education (Calif.), p. 101).

Second protection of peoples liberty, whereby the unitary system has overwhelming power bestowed on a single set off individuals or is held by a central institution which decides on behalf of the rest of the citizens. However the federal system ensures that there is no concentration of power in the central government by setting up checks and balances which ensures that each level of government can exercise various roles and each has a limit. It also disperses power to the citizensby setting up institutions through which the citizens can access power. These include the office of the governor, senator etc. (Bardes, Shelley and Schmidt, p. 83).

Thirdly promoting political pluralism, whereby federalism advocates for political activity in the local area, therefore locals are able to manage there own affairs. As a result different groups are able to promote their own agendas within their regions and also more individuals and groups will have a chance to give their opinion in public policy making. The individuals can also feel that they have gained public efficacy. On the other hand unitary system cannot adequately promote political pluralism, particularly because the political agenda is set in the central government arena which some groups cannot access even if they wanted to(Bond & Smith, p. 80).


Experimentation in public policy; when a policy is developed it is not guaranteed that it will effectively meet its objective. Through federal system a new policy can be experimented in one state and if it works it can then be rolled out in all other states. This is a way of reducing the negative impact of a bad policy and also the government has a chance to make improvements on areas of weaknesses before it is fully implemented. However in a unitary system provinces cannot act as policy laboratories as the law is developed by the central government and rolled out at once. For instance an education system can be implemented that might have negative effects on the students. Therefore before it is withdrawn it would have affected all the students in the country(Bond & Smith, p. 80).

Efficiency of resource use; unitary system takes longer periods before decisions are made especially when handling large areas. In addition resources may be misused because different regions have different priority needs and therefore using an approach of single outfit leads to the wrong use of resources. However when it comes to federalism local governments can make decisions faster as they are in touch with the situation on the ground. In addition the resources are used to address the specific needs and desires of the locals which can be easily determined. This promotes efficiency and effectiveness in resource use as the same regions produce the resources they use (Ariunaa, p. 24-26)

Promoting discrimination; federalism is more likely to promote discrimination than a unitary system, particularly because when states have authority to set their own standards the majority groups will always push for laws that discriminate against the minority. This includes issues such as basic human rights or even welfare state benefits. This was mostly seen in the US whereby the states that were dominated by whites discriminated against the black minority particularly in the southern eastern states. On the other hand a unitary system always tries to come up with laws that are all inclusive. In fact it punishes those who try to discriminate against other citizens(Center for Civic Education (Calif.),p. 102).

Complexity and inefficiency of laws; in a federal system different states may have different laws governing one issue such as traffic laws. Speed limit varies in different states and this means that that one can end up breaking a law by crossing the state boundary. Therefore the legality of ones actions is not only determined by what he does but also by where he does it. This is opposed to the situation in a unitary system where people are governed by laws that clearly defined by the central government and applies equally to all regions. Therefore the governed are sure of what is legal and what is not and are not worried when visiting other regions (Obinger, Leibfried & Geoffrey, p. 140-142).

Accountability; the variation in a federal system makes it difficult to hold the government accountable. In the times of crisis it is hard to determine who holds the primary responsibility, in case a situation is not handled properly. Whether it’s the president, the mayor or it’s the state governor. It also hard to determine who is primarily responsible for the funding of a given project; whether it’s the state or federal government. This is not the case with a unitary system because the central government bears the ultimate authority and responsibility as well. Therefore it will readily come in to help the local authorities where they are inefficient (Bond & Smith, p. 81)


It clearly comes out that both federal and unitary systems have there areas of strengths and weaknesses. Federalism is credited in promoting democracy, protection of liberty, promoting political pluralism and efficient use of resources to meet the needs of the citizens. On the other hand unitary system has been credited in ensuring accountability of the government, promoting indiscrimination and reducing complexity of laws by having laws that apply equally throughout the country. This therefore means that each of the systems is stronger where the other is weak, as result different countries have adopted different systems. In addition in each case has great and worst performance.




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