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Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism

An In-depth Look at the Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism

As of today, twenty-four of the world's one hundred ninety-three countries have a federal political set up. Looking at these countries' political history, it can be said that there are both advantages and disadvantages of federalism. This Buzzle article takes an in-depth look at the same.
Aastha Dogra
Last Updated: Jun 10, 2018
What is Federalism?
Federalism is a political system in which the powers are divided between the central government and numerous regional governments.

A majority of democracies around the world have a unitary system of government, wherein power is centered around the national government. In federalism, there is a written constitution which formulates this power sharing arrangement between the state and its units. These units, referred to as the provincial or regional governments, have the power to act independently in certain areas of governance. In the United States too, the power is shared between the national and regional or state governments. The local governments have exclusive powers to issue licenses, provide for public health, conduct elections and form local governments, look after the intrastate trade, etc. This political system was adopted to ensure greater safety and autonomy against internal and external threats.

At present, federalism is being followed not only in First World countries like USA, Australia and Canada but also in developing countries like Mexico, India and Brazil. Contemplating a change in the governing set up of the nation, some countries like Sri Lanka and Philippines are intently scrutinizing its advantages and disadvantages. In today's changed environment though it does make sense to question the pros and cons of the following the federal system of governance.


Localized Governance
Every province has political, social and economic problems peculiar to the region itself. Provincial government representatives live in proximity to the people and are most of the time from the same community, so that they are in a better position to understand these problems and offer unique solutions for them. For example, traffic congestion in Oahu, Hawaii is a problem that can be best solved by the local government, keeping local factors in mind, rather than by somebody living in New York.

Local Representation
Federalism offers representation to different populations. Citizens of various provinces may have different aspirations, ethnicity and follow different cultures. The central government can sometimes overlook these differences and adopt policies which cater to the majority. This is where the regional government steps in. While formulating policies, local needs, tastes and opinions are given due consideration by the state governments. Rights of the minorities are protected too. For example, in states like Arizona where there is a large Hispanic population and therefore, a large number of schools provide bilingual education.

Freedom to Form Policies
State governments have the freedom to adopt policies which may not be followed nationally or by any other state. For example, same-sex marriages are not recognized by the federal government of USA but they are given legal status within certain states like Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Massachusetts.

Optimum Utilization of Resources
Division of work between the central and the regional governments leads to optimum utilization of resources. The central government can concentrate more on international affairs and defense of the country, while the provincial government can cater to the local needs.

Scope for Innovation and Experimentation
Federalism has room for innovation and experimentation. Two local governments can have two different approaches to bring reforms in any area of public domain, be it taxation or education. The comparison of the results of these policies can give a clear idea of which policy is better and thus, can be adopted in the future.

Federalism no doubt has many positives vis-a-vis communism or imperialism but still, some political scientists often raise questions about its advantages.


Conflict of Authority
Sharing of power between the center and the states includes both advantages and disadvantages of a federal organization. Sometimes there can be overlapping of work and subsequent confusion regarding who is responsible for what. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit Greater New Orleans, USA, in 2005, there was delay in the rescue work, as there was confusion between the state governments and the federal government on who is responsible for which disaster management work. This resulted in the loss of many lives.

Can Lead to Corruption
Federal system of government is very expensive as more people are elected to office, both at the state and the center, than necessary. Thus, it is often said that only rich countries can afford it. Too many elected representatives with overlapping roles may also lead to corruption.

Pitches State vs State
Federalism leads to unnecessary competition between different regions. There can be a rebellion by a regional government against the national government too. Both scenarios pose a threat to the country's integrity.

Uneven Distribution of Wealth
It promotes regional inequalities. Natural resources, industries, employment opportunities differ from region to region. Hence, earnings and wealth are unevenly distributed. Rich states offer more opportunities and benefits to its citizens than poor states. Thus, the gap between rich and poor states widens.

Promotes Regionalism
It can make state governments selfish and concerned only about their own region's progress. They can formulate policies which might be detrimental to other regions. For example, pollution from a province which is promoting industrialization in a big way can affect another region which depends solely on agriculture and cause crop damage.

Framing of Incorrect Policies
Federalism does not eliminate poverty. Even in New York, there are poor neighborhoods like Inwood. The reason for this may be that intellectuals and not the masses are invited by the local government during policy framing. These intellectuals may not understand the local needs properly and thus, policies might not yield good results.

Thus, it is understandable that there have been both pros and cons of federalism in the USA. There is a general feeling that the rights of the minorities, like blacks, are compromised in USA. But at the same time, the United States now, has a democratically elected African-American President. Similarly, there have been advantages and disadvantages in other countries as well. For this to be truly successful, it should be accompanied by other ideals like secularism, democracy and liberalism.