The definition of federalism is straightforward: it is the federal principle or system of government. Throughout history, it has been a political system where 2+ governments share authority over the same geographical area. Most of the democratic countries in the world today use this method of governing, including Australia, Canada, India, and the United States.
Even the European Union is an example of federalism.
The exact structures of each system can vary widely based on how the country sets up its governing process. In the EU, the members of the upper houses in the government are not elected or appointed, but they serve as delegates of their respective governments. For the United States, there are local, country, and state governing authorities which all have a unique set of laws and regulations for people to follow.
Some choose to use a central system of government that regulates the entire country. Others do not. Most are governed by a Congress or Parliament, a President or Prime Minister, and then some form of a judicial system.
There are several pros and cons of federalism to consider when looking at it as a political system.
List of the Pros of Federalism
1. Federalism provides a structure that diffuses governmental power.
Many forms of federalism look to create checks and balances throughout society as a way to create an equal governing process. By diffusing power to multiple branches of office, like the U.S. does with the executive, legislative, and judicial segments, it becomes more challenging for one division to take over the country. When power is not centralized in a government, then there are fewer issues with individual corruption that can impact the entire nation.
2. Federalism creates a protection against tyranny.
This form of government will also make it challenging for a single branch of government to obtain complete control over the structure. There is no way to obtain runaway power in this structure unless voters approve of that process first. Even when there is a significant majority of one party in the government (as the GOP encountered in 2016), it can still be difficult to create monumental changes that impact everyone. This process is one of the primary reasons why democratic countries choose this form over the other governing options which are available.
3. Federalism is an efficient process.
Because the U.S. provides some of the power to the states, it creates efficiencies in the governing system because delegation is possible. Local governments receive the right to begin solving some of their own problems. If this structure was not available, then you would get cookie-cutter regulations that may not apply to some geographical areas. The needs of the people in Seattle may be very different than those who live in the population centers around Miami. This structure allows each group to live in a way that maximizes their safety while minimizing effort.
4. Federalism increases the level of participation by individuals.
People become more involved with their government in a variety of ways when federalism is the structure in place. Elected officials are closer to what a citizen is than a state official under this structure, which means people can visit a local office to express their opinions without a fear of judgment. When we have a chance to embrace diversity as a culture, then it is an opportunity to draw upon each of our strengths to create something amazing. Other forms of government do not offer such an opportunity.
5. Federalism encourages a system of cooperation.
Different communities have unique requirements that they must meet to maximize their quality of life. Instead of mandating that everyone follows the same set of laws, this system allows each community to create a foundation that works the best for their needs. If you travel to almost any town, city, or village in the United States, then you will discover a different set of laws, rules, and regulations to follow. Many of them are similar, but there are also several which are not.
6. Federalism encourages innovation in governing.
Because this structure of government looks at cooperation and sharing as its primary structure, there is an opportunity to try a different set of policies to see how they will work. This process can create positive or negative results. A recent example in the United States of this advantage is the requirement to drug test working adults who receive welfare benefits. Some governments are trying it, while others or not. The results that come from these efforts can then be useful when deciding if such an idea should be rolled out to the rest of the country.
7. Federalism allows the government to become more responsive to individual needs.
When a government is closer to its citizens, then it can provide a responsive solution when there are citizen needs, emergency situations, or changes that are necessary in the structure of laws. This advantage is one of the reasons why aid for Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria took longer to receive than states in the continental 48. The local governments could distribute resources first instead of relying on the national government like the island because of the availability of local resources.
List of the Cons of Federalism
1. Federalism often protects the will of the majority at any cost.
Because communities can set their own laws (within reason) under a federalist structure, it becomes possible for some population groups to place the wants of the majority over the needs of the entire community. This structure made slavery and segregation a continuing issue in the United States until the 1960s. It was partially responsible for the division in the 1800s that eventually led to the Civil War. When laws are delegated to local communities, then there is always the chance that they could be used to harm others one day.
2. Federalism can encourage the passing of ridiculous laws.
The structure of federalism encourages local communities to self-govern in the most efficient manner possible. This process is usually a healthy way to help keep households safe no matter where they are in the country. It can also be used as a way to pass ridiculous laws as a way to make a political statement, discourage tourism, or some other specific result. Here are just a few of the craziest laws you can find in the U.S. right now.
• It is illegal in Arizona for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub.
• If you go to Colorado, then it is illegal to keep a couch on your porch.
• You are not allowed to sell the hair of a dog or cat in Delaware.
• Hawaii made it against the law to place a coin in your ear.
• You cannot “drive” a horse in Indiana above a set speed limit of 10mph.
3. Federalism allows local governments to fight the national governments.
The local governments can decide to fight the existence of some specific national laws by going through the justice system of the country. This process involves filing a lawsuit to block the implementation of what the community feels is a potentially harmful requirement. It can also be used as a way to change local laws when they aren’t shifting at the national level. One of the most significant examples of this issue involves the legalization of recreational cannabis.
That’s not to say that all actions are a disadvantage. There are times when blocking the implementation of federal law is beneficial. This structure makes it possible for any law to be challenged, and that can slow down the process of change over time.
4. Federalism allows national governments to fight the local ones.
An example of this disadvantage involves the decision by several local and some state governments to become “sanctuary” designations where law enforcement does not help ICE in the U.S. with immigration detainment. The U.S. government threatened to pull funding from the cities choosing this action, and then filed suit against them in an effort to try getting compliance.
The structure of this government can create inefficiencies in the system because the national government might not like the way the local officials choose to oversee their communities. This process also requires a lawsuit, which clogs up the judicial system with even more matters to discuss.
5. Federalism can create oppositional competition.
Because each community can create their own set of laws and rules in a system of federalism (especially in the United States), then the structure can create unwanted competition for resources that seeks to limit some demographics. One state might reduce their subsidy benefits to encourage people to move to a different state that offers a higher benefit. Another government might offer a significant tax break to a company that encourages them to place offices in one location and not another.
6. Federalism can create uncertainty.
Because there are multiple layers of government working cooperatively with one another in a federalist system, it can be challenging at times for specific communities to know where they can receive assistance. There are natural disasters, national welfare aid distributed to the states for authorization, public education resources, and many more benefits or circumstances where someone must navigate each level of government to find the results they want. Knowing who is responsible for specific issues can make it difficult for any aid to make it to its intended destination.
7. Federalism can be inefficient.
There are efficiencies to consider with delegation that make this governing structure such an inviting option. Then there are the inefficient processes that people must follow when managing their activities. People must stay in compliance with the laws that are in every layer of governing. That means some people in the U.S. must follow four different sets of laws. Knowing what you can or cannot do can be a confusing process, especially when there are conflicting statements offered by the different parties.
8. Federalism can be structured to benefit only the rich.
Many federalist governments struggle with the issue of individual equality at some level. For the United States, it is the wage and wealth gaps to consider. The top 1% of income earners own a majority of the wealth increases experienced since 2009. Many women only make 80% for doing the same job that men do when they look at their salary. These structures can be challenging to change when there are some many obstacles that are put in the way thanks to the checks and balances of this system.
The pros and cons of federalism provide evidence that it is usually better for a society and nation if there is a system of power sharing available for the government. It creates checks and balances in a system that promote individual freedoms and self-governing at a higher level when compared to the other options which are possible. Although there are challenges to face in any type of government, most people who live in a federalist system say that they wouldn’t change the structure whatsoever.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.