|A form of government in which central and regional authorities divide powers and functions, with the initial aim of maintaining a high degree of autonomy for the regional units (Wheare, 1963). Federal systems usually come into existence to balance between local and ethnic interests yet gain the benefits of economies of scale in the provision of some functions at the central level. The challenge facing federal systems is to prevent one level from dictating to the other as, at one extreme, with unitary government and, at the other, with confederation. A written constitution is necessary to achieve this aim, although disputes always seem to arise over interpreting the \'original intent\' of the writers in later conditions in which economic, technological and social changes make many of their concerns appear anachronistic. This tends to give extremely wide discretionary powers to the federal judiciary, and the highest court (such as the US Supreme Court) in particular, to adjudicate between the competing demands of the two levels of government. Some matters, such as foreign policy, defence and international trade, are usually reserved for the central government with all others, in theory, left in the hands of the regional units. This geographical division of functions is often designed to prevent the concentration of public power, particularly when combined, as in the US case, with a divided central government (executive, legislature and judiciary). This leads to charges of a system-wide lack of \'decisional focus\' and the usurping of public power by the best organized private interests (Cerny, 1989; Ollman and Birnbaum, 1990). American federalism, with its emphasis on individual citizenship rights, also has difficulty in moving from the purely \'territorial\' conception of representation implicit in a fixed balance between levels of government to one based on recognizing the representation claims of minorities, women and other historically disenfranchised groups who live spread out around the country (Agnew, 1995).
In practice, federations vary widely in how they work. Some, such as the former Soviet Union under its 1936 Constitution, have been fictive rather than real although its claim to allow secession was no more fanciful than the fictions about free consent that animate most other federal constitutions. Most of those federations established in former colonies have long-since floundered (e.g. the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the West Indian Federation). Interdependence, more than true separation of functions, marks the political complexion of many of the others, if only because of increased collaboration between governments at different levels. Most federal systems have become more centralized over time as citizens themselves have pressured for national redis-tributive policies (as in the US New Deal of the 1930s) and the enforcement of civil rights in constituent units (as in the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s). But some, particularly those with geographically concentrated ethnic groups (see ethnicity), have become more decentralized (as in Canada) or have broken up (as in the former Yugoslavia). In the US since the late 1970s the regional units (the States) have become more assertive with respect to taking charge of services, revenue collection and economic development. This trend has been reinforced by the election of presidents in the 1980s and 1990s who have been ideologically committed to limiting the general role of the central government and deregulating the national economy. Increasingly, the States have experimented with their own alternatives to federal mandates. One consequence in some policy areas has been pressure on traditional federal preserves such as control over immigration and foreign-economic policy as some States, such as California and Texas, embark on their own immigration-related and economic-development policies without federal involvement. In those federations based around ethnic divisions the dilemma is that regional units legitimize the ethnic divisions and trap politics in a perpetual round of ethnic enmities, yet also provide one way out of the impasse of open conflict that ethnic divisions often generate (Smith, 1995). One thing all federal systems seem to share is a recurring sense of crisis as old divisions of powers encounter new pressures for centralization or decentralization. The continuing appeal of federalism, however, seems to lie in an openness to plurality and multiplicity; features one does not typically associate with most unitary states such as France or China.Â (JAA)
References and Suggested Reading Agnew, J.A. 1995: Postscript: federalism in the post-Cold War era. In G. Smith, ed., Federalism: the multiethnic challenge. London: Longman, 294-302.Â Cerny, P.G. 1989: Political entropy and American decline. Millennium 18: 47-63.Â Ollman, B. and Birnbaum, J., eds, 1990: The United States Constitution: 200 years of anti-federalist, abolitionist, feminist, muckraking, progressive, and (especially) socialist criticism. New York: New York University Press.Â Smith, G., ed., 1995: Federalism: the multiethnic challenge. London: Longman.Â Wheare, K.C. 1963: Federal government, 4th edn. London: Oxford University Press.