I am pleased to present a guest post by Stephanie Barr of Rocket Scientist. This is something you that will help your understanding of our American government, and how it came to be.
Relax Max has asked me to write a blog on what federalism is. In
concept, this is simple. Federal, as define by Merriam Webster
[http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/federal] defines it as a
compact where political units "surrender their individual sovereignty to
a central authority but retain limited residuary powers of government"
and several variations on that theme. Wikipedia
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federation] also has a well-defined
description of what a federation is.
In many ways, it's easier to describe what a federation is not. It is
not a single unit of government, such as a unitary state, with districts
and towns governed and rule by that central government, just as layers
of a hierarchy. In this case, in a federation, there IS a central
authority, but the governments at the state and county and city level
are all independently operated and elected, rather than run and
appointed at the central level.
The relative advantage for a federal government relative to a unitary
state is that people in an actual geographic area get to have more
direct say in how their part of the country is run, rather than have
everything, down to the smallest iota, defined at a national level and
imposed down. For example, hurricane building codes for Florida and the
Texas Gulf Coast aren't imposed on Iowa or even west Texas, where they
aren't necessary and would impose unreasonable burdens on developers.
A relative disadvantage for a federal government relative to a unitary
state is that the law tends to be convoluted and complex and standards
from even adjacent districts can vary widely. This makes law
professionals essential to do even simple tasks, as they sift through
the various local, state and federal statutes and means that government
services like police or education or social services, can vary widely
depending on where you live. It also allows for distinct inequality
depending on the relative wealth of some areas and some populations over
A confederation, on the other hand, often has the same structure, but
more of the "central" authority is at the discretion of the states.
States can leave if they choose. Decisions and changes in the central
government are often dependent on the voting/consensus/even unanimity of the sovereign states.
The advantage of a federation over a confederation is that the central
government can function more expeditiously and simply. The central
government in a confederacy's central government can readily become like
a paritioner, starved of power except in name, begging and pandering for
power to do ANYTHING. Depending on the distribution of power, the
advantages of the actual pact between "states" can be worn away or lost.
The advantage is that those in a geographical area have nearly complete
control over their own laws and requirements, their taxes, social
services, etc. Adverse effects in a different state may have minimal
impact on their own.
The differences, actually between a confederacy and a federation, are
largely a matter of degree. Often a confederacy has a shared defense,
but usually has individual armies as well. Confederacies can have
individual monetary systems or share monetary systems, ditto for
So, why give up sovereignty for a federation?
Defense is more effective in a federation (though there's always the
possibility of war that serves on certain areas or interests). A
uniform set of services can exist to serve all (i.e. post office) and
monetary system can greatly facilitate economic interaction.
In our federation (US), we have a centralized army/navy/defense and the
state governments do not directly control the federal government but
rather individuals from different geographical are elected to serve the
interests of their constituents in the central government. Single
monetary system, certain independent services. But the key, in my
opinion, is the Bill of Rights, where certain key "rights" were defined
that no other agency could undo, including the states. That, in my
opinion, is what set the original federation apart from the different
examples that came before and influenced our constitution.
Note that this is flavored with my own view, so you are free to disagree
with aspects and opinions expressed here.