Federal States, Put Simply


By Campaign Agent Sophie Savage

A state can either be unitary or federal. Whether a state is classed as unitary or federal depends on how different levels of government are organised according to the state’s Constitution (the laws and principles that set out how a country should be governed).

Concerning unitary and federal states, the different levels of governments are the central and the sub-national government. In a federal state, the central government is the machine which governs the entire state, country, or nation. This is the federal government. Sub-national government, ultimately, is government that is not countrywide – the opposite of central government. Sub-national governments can be at different levels: states, municipalities, and provinces. For this piece, when we look at sub-national government we will discuss it as state government. The use of state in state government refers to federal States like those in the United States of America or Germany, rather than sovereign polities.

In a federal state, Federal (central) government has control over the entire country, as defined by the laws set out in the nation’s constitution. However, unlike in a unitary state, the Constitution also dictates that state (sub-central) government must be given some autonomy and independent power over their own sub-national units (an example of a sub-national unit would be one of America’s fifty States e.g., California).

The division of powers and what federal and state government have control over varies from one constitution to the next. Additionally, the same goes for how many sub-national units there are in a federal state and how the nation as a whole is divided into sub-national units. This means that no two federal states are the same.

Example of a Federal State

Below follows an example of what a federal state can look like:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 15.20.50

Above, we can see that Federal Government has authority over the entire nation, and the sub-central units within the nation. The duties federal government could have complete and independent control over could be duties such as: declaring war, conducting foreign policy, and controlling the lender of last resort or central bank.

We can then see that many sub-central units exist. These all have their own individual state governments, simultaneously, they are all under the authority of the one federal government. The duties for the state governments could concern welfare, housing, and transport in that sub-central unit.

What Types of State are Unitary States?

The difference between unitary and federal states can often be seen in the differing characteristics of the states.

Federal states tend to exist in countries that are geographically large and/or states that are not homogenous. States not being homogenous could mean that they are ethnically or culturally diverse, separated by religion, belief etc. – differing in some way.

This is logical when you think about it. Going back to our example from earlier, imagine sub-central unit 1 and sub-central unit 2 both have drastically different populations. It makes sense to allow them to be governed in differing ways by individual states governments, while still being held together by the federal government.

Examples of Federal States

Some examples of federal states are the United States of America, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.

Pros and Cons of Federal States

Pros of a Federal State

  • Separation of powers – separates powers between federal and state government, meaning no one person or group has too much control over the state.
  • Protects the rights of geographically concentrated minorities – the needs of cultural, religious, or ethnic group that are a minority across the federal state but are in the majority in a particular geographical area are better addressed by sub-central units who may understand them better
  • Keeps a state together – if only one government is given constitutional authority in a diverse country, some groups might feel their needs are not being met and may want to separate from the state. Allowing constitutional power to individual sub-central governments prevents this.

Cons of a Federal State

  • Confusion – duties of federal and state government may overlap or become confused. While in theory, they are separate, in practice, this is not always the case.
  • Disunity – can cause a lack of integration and common identity between different state or provinces within the country because they have their own government, rather than a singular shared government, as seen in theoretical unitary states
  • Deflection from national issues – may sway interests to be focused provincially rather than nationally.


Further Reading and sources: 

Federal Systems, Encyclopaedia Britannica
Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism, Sparknotes


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