A unitary government is a state which is governed under a single central governing structure which treats itself as being the final say in every decision. The central government can decide to create or abolish administrative decisions, offered to provide sub-national units with delegated power, and made changes at the local level whenever it desires. It is the most common form of governing in the world today, with 165 of 193 UN member states having a unitary system of government.
The contrast with a federal state is this: whereas the federal state sees the national government as being an equal actor with the other levels of required governing (local, county, and state/provincial), the unitary government sees itself as being superior. It is possible to have a unitary republic or monarchy while using this structure.
Two of the best examples of this form of government are found in the United Kingdom and France. The UK is technically a constitutional monarchy, but it functions as a unitary state because all political power is held by Parliament. The other countries in this confederation have their own governments, but they cannot enact laws that would impact any other part of the UK. In France, the central government exercises total control over all of the local political subdivisions.
Even though it is the most common form of governing found in the world today, there are still several pros and cons of a unitary government to consider.
List of the Pros of a Unitary Government
1. It creates less confusion over the governing process for the average citizen.
In the United States, the average person is subject to the laws of four different co-equal governing bodies simultaneously. If you decide to travel to a different town in a neighboring county, then you’re still subject to your own local laws in some situations, while also being required to follow what is expected in that other community. You’re also bound by the different state laws – if you buy legal recreational marijuana in Washington State, you can’t take it to a location where it is illegal to have it in your possession.
The advantage of the unitary government is that this confusion disappears. Instead of having multiple layers of bureaucracy to navigate, you have a clear set of expectations to follow. That may provide some inconvenience at times, but it can also reduce the risk of an unknown violation of the law.
2. This government structure can respond quickly to emergency situations.
The structure of the unitary government means that every decision is made by the central governing body. This process saves time during an emergency situation because there are not multiple layers of bureaucracy to navigate so that resources can get to where they need to go. Whenever an unexpected situation arises, whether it is from a natural disaster or a declaration of war, the government can respond with better accuracy and more speed domestically or overseas because one decision instead of four or more needs to be made.
3. Unitary governments are usually cheaper to run.
Because you are not contending with multiple layers of bureaucracy under the unitary style, there are fewer administrative costs to manage with this centralized government. It provides a smaller structure to the overall state of the nation, potentially reducing the tax burden on households without creating a reduction in the access to services that they require. This efficiency makes it possible to create stronger safety nets for those who are out of work for an extended time or have disabilities which keep them out of the labor force.
4. It is a smaller form of government.
Local services are still a priority for a unitary form of government. The only difference is how communities are able to access this resource. Instead of working with local governing officials, the centralized state will send a delegate to oversee the needs of each community. That is how France structures it’s form of government.
There are almost 1,000 local political subdivisions that they call “Departments” in the country. Each one is headed by and administrative prefect who was appointed into the position from the central government. Each regional department exists to implement the directives that the central government issues on a regular basis.
5. There is less complexity in the legal system of a unitary government.
In the United States, the constitution specifically reserved some of the powers of governing to the federal government. Other powers are then granted to the collective states, while a handful of responsibilities are shared by both. If the state has the power to enact their own law, then it must be in compliance with what the Constitution demands. The distribution of power is often a source of debate because disputes over the rights of each state can arise, requiring the judicial system to step in to sour things out. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide which powers go where, which is not an element found in the unitary government.
6. A unitary system of governing can replicate federated states.
Although the unitary government is centralized and makes decisions through authoritarian processes more often than not, this structure can be designed in such a way that it replicates the style of a federated state. Instead of a local government, a unitary system will place a delegate, ambassador, or someone in a similar position to administer local resources. People can speak to the officials at their local office to voice their concerns about local matters. Then the state representatives can communicate these issues to the governing body to ensure that enough attention is given to the problem.
7. Unitarian governments work to create a system of unity.
The whole purpose of a correctly-structure unitary government is to create common ground. Instead of dividing a person’s loyalties between the state and the national government, everyone is placed in a position where they work to support one another. There are no overlapping districts, issues with gerrymandering, or political polarization because everything operates through the central system. Even when there are multiple elections held each year to sort out national representation, the results are a direct reflection of the diversity found in society. Working with a federate system, especially one with only two parties, creates more of a system of compromise instead.
List of the Cons of a Unitary Government
1. A unitary government can be lacking in infrastructure.
Although it is possible for a unitary government to make decisions quickly, the structure can lack in the infrastructure it needs to implement the choices it makes. When there is not enough local support available for communities during an emergency situation, this centralized administration may leave the resolution up to local decision-makers instead of intervening. Since this delegation may not include the power to make needed changes to protect people, the absence of an independent local government can sometimes cause more harm than good.
2. It is a structure that can ignore local needs.
The benefit of having a government at the local, county, and state level is that it can concentrate on local needs without interfering on the national level. The federal government in the United States worries about providing defense, managing transportation networks, and providing resources for those who lack socioeconomic access. Local governments can then focus on their micro-economy, create solutions for needs that occur in their community, and support the national government with their actions simultaneously.
Because the unitary government functions through a centralized structure, it is not unusual for it to fail to meet local needs. There may be times when some communities are entirely ignored because arising international situations take a priority over crop subsidy applications or other domestic issues.
3. This governing structure can encourage an abuse of power.
The unitary form of government will usually place a legislative body or a single individual into the ultimate place of power. These people or governing agencies will hold almost every decision-making responsibility once they are put into office. When we take a look back through the stories of history, the pages are quick to show that when power is held by only a few or just one, then it is abused far too easily.
This disadvantage is the precise reason why the United States created a federated state instead. Instead of having one form of centralized power, there is a complete system of checks and balances to use that provide more equality in the governing process.
4. Manipulation can occur quite easily in a unitary government.
Although a unitary government can improve efficiencies because there is a lack of bureaucracy, the structure also makes it possible for individuals in the government to manipulate the system. When someone in power decides to pursue more wealth or governing opportunities for themselves, then there are very few ways to stop that activity. By creating a system which offers a chance to manipulate the system for personal needs, the majority of the population must pay for the boost in power and wealth that one person receives.
5. It is a governing structure that will protect the central body first.
Because the goal of a government is self-preservation, the various “arms” that work at the local level are usually the first resources cut when they’re in budgetary issues. The needs of at the national level will always outweigh what local needs are with this government. That means the decisions it makes are typically based on its own survival first instead of taking the interests of the population under consideration. In severe circumstances, it can even lead to local communities becoming ungoverned with a lack of resource access, even though they are still expected to pledge support to the government who isn’t supporting them.
6. Many unitary governments do not allow areas of any autonomy.
When there is a unitary government which offers no degree of autonomy to the areas under its control, then the sub-national regions are not allowed to decide their own laws at any time. Examples of this form of governing are currently found in Norway, Ireland, and Romania. Even where the government permits the presence of sub-national governments in this structure, there is not a sharing of power. Their right to existence is at the leisure of the overall government, and the authority of these divisions can change at any time.
7. The purpose of the unitary government is to have the few control the many.
People are just as patriotic under a unitary system of government as they are with a federal system. The disadvantage of the centralized state is that there are fewer opportunities to get involved with the legislative process. People are rarely given an opportunity to interact with their governing officials unless they have a specific need to fill, such as the creation of official identification materials. If there is a shift in policy that takes rights away from select groups of people, there might not be anything that the general population can do to stop that process from happening.
8. It can also have a slower national response in localized emergencies.
The decision-making process of a unitary government may be fast, but the design of their resources means that the response can be very slow. Every authorization for assistance must come through the centralized government. That means there are times when there is more bureaucracy to navigate instead of less since a federated state could immediate dispatch assistance, like how a governor can send out the National Guard to provide support.
9. Unitary governments can run into a lot of bloating.
If a government switches from a federated system to this one, the benefits often shine brightly at first. It feels like everything begins to move at a more rapid pace. Then the bloating begins to happen in the government. Because it must suddenly become everything to everyone, the processes can get significantly bogged down. The bureaucracy increases because every authorization requires a review from a central official. That can mean it will take even more time to get things done, even if everyone is in agreement that a legislative change is necessary.
10. This structure can artificially shape the discussions of society.
A unitary government can decide at its leisure what is legal or illegal in society. If someone with enough power decides that their political opponents are a threat, then they can pass laws which allow them to be imprisoned for what they have done. The majority typically rules at the expense of the minority in this situation, only granting rights to people when it suits their best interests. This process artificially shapes what happens in society because blogs, social media, and even face-to-face conversations might be monitored to see if something “harmful” to the government is said.
Conclusion of the Unitary Government Pros and Cons
A unitary government is the most common form of governing found on our planet today. There are several advantages to consider with this process which occur mostly due to the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of this structure. Instead of following multiple laws simultaneously, the general population is asked to follow one specific set of regulations instead. This process limits confusion and bureaucracy.
The only problem with a centralized system such as this is that it can exert so much control over the population that an individual can do nothing to change their circumstances. A unitary government can work to control every aspect of life for the people it governs. That includes how the financial markets work, what rights people have with their daily interactions, and who receives the majority of the monetary benefits in society.
The pros and cons of a unitary government work to balance the needs of a nation with what a community requires for dialing living. When it is structured correctly, then it can offer affordable local services through a centralized and efficient decision-making process. It can also become the foundation for some of the most oppressive societies that our planet has ever seen.
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.