Introduction to Federalism


Federalism by Ron Watts

Federalism provides a technique of constitutional organization that permits action by a shared government for certain common purposes, together with autonomous action by constituent units of government for purposes that relate to maintaining their distinctiveness, with each level directly responsible to its own electorate. Indeed, taking account of such examples as Canada, the United States and Mexico in North America, Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina in South America, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Spain in Europe, Russia in Europe and Asia, Australia, India, Pakistan and Malaysia in Asia, and Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa in Africa, some 40 percent of the world’s population today live in countries that can be considered or claim to be federal, and many of these federations are clearly multicultural or even multinational in their composition.

Ron Watts, former Principal of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario and Fellow of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, from Federalism Today, the background paper written for the International Conference on Federalism 2002, Saint Gallen, Switzerland, August 2002.

Federalism by John Kincaid

Federalism is essentially a system of voluntary self-rule and shared rule. This is implied in the derivation of the word ‘federal’, which comes from the Latin foedus, meaning covenant. A covenant signifies a binding partnership among co-equals in which the parties to the covenant retain their individual identity and integrity while creating a new entity, such as a family or a body politic, that has its own identity and integrity as well. A covenant also signifies a morally binding commitment in which the partners behave toward each other in accord with the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter of the law.

John Kincaid, Professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and director of the College’s Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government, from John Kincaid, Handbook of Federal Countries: 2002, Introduction, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Multi-level Governance by Michael Stein

Multi-level Governance is a concept developed by academics and policy-makers in the late 1980s and early 1990s in conjunction with the emergence of a more economically and politically integrated European Union. It was initially intended to describe a broadening of the concept of federalism in a vertical and territorial sense to include the intergovernmental policy-making structures of more than two levels of government, but no more than five: international, regional supra-national, national, regional sub-national and local. In recent years, however, the concept has also been extended horizontally and functionally to encompass non-governmental and non-statist entities such as private sector interest groups and non-profit organizations and charitable organizations whose role in the international policy-making process is increasing with economic globalization. These multi-level governance structures tend to be more ephemeral and flexible in nature, and more numerous and fragmented than other intergovernmental policy-making structures (Hooghe and Marks 2003). In contrast to that in traditional Anglo-American federalism, the pattern of intergovernmental relations in the European Union reflects the features of an overlapping, interlocking, and cooperative type of federalism that is generally identified with a distinct continental European tradition of federalism. But many proponents of multi-level governance argue that there are good grounds today for applying this concept analytically to intergovernmental policy-making structures outside the European Union, particularly to the increasingly important supranational and local governance structures in politically decentralized countries.

There is currently no one generally accepted definition of multi-level governance. Among common strands, however, are the following: first, the tendency over time towards increased participation of non-state actors in governance functions; second, the proliferation of overlapping decision-making networks; third, a change in the role of the state from command and control to steering, coordination and networking, and fourth, the challenges faced by multi-level governance structures in terms of democratic accountability (Bache and Flinders 2004). Among the major criticisms of the concept are: 1) it is too descriptive and cannot explain or predict governance policy outcomes; 2) its proponents exaggerate the importance of sub-national policy actors and underestimate the role of national governments at the implementation and outcome stages of public policy-making; 3) its adherents exaggerate the hierarchical nature of the intergovernmental relationship prior to the emergence of multi-level governance patterns, and overemphasize the extra-constitutional and non-institutional nature of its networking processes; 4) the concept only applies to particular policy sectors and levels, rather than being a general feature of these processes (Jordan 2001).

Michael Stein, Visiting Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, Canada.

Decentralization by Arthur Benz

The concept of decentralization usually refers to multilevel structures of government or administration. It results from (re)allocation of power to elect or denominate policymakers, of legislative or administrative competences or of fiscal resources from higher to lower levels. Given interdependencies between levels, decentralization is to be regarded as a relational concept. Regardless of its extent, decentralization affects governance and democratic legitimacy. For this reason, it is not only a matter of multilevel power games but also contested for normative reasons.

In political theory and practice, decentralization is now mostly regarded as a preferable alternative to centralization. One reason for decentralization is derived from the principle of subsidiarity. Rooted in the political philosophy of reformed Protestantism in the early 17th century and in social theory of the Catholic Church of the 19th century, it defends the priority of small social communities against large societies and a centralized, bureaucratic state. Moreover, decentralization is said to improve democracy. If government is closer to the people, communication between citizens and their representatives should be more effective and individual preferences should have better chances to be considered in political decisions. Decentralised structures can reflect plurality and regional differentiation of societal interests. Liberalist theories prefer decentralization as a device against dictatorship either of autocrats or of majorities. Economic theories stipulate that decentralization fosters efficiency of policy making. If citizens have an opportunity to choose between alternative supplies of public goods or services provided by lower-level governments demanding different tax burdens, they force governments competing for taxpayers to make every effort to find an optimal ratio of costs and benefits.

Arthur Benz, Professor at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany.