Literature on Federalism

The literature on federalism is wide and varied. The scholarly interest in federalism has its origins in the late 18th century and the 19th century, when the transition of the United States to a federal model gave rise to intellectual and analytical debates about the meaning and the characteristics of federalism. 


 Works by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill extolled the advantages of federal government, described some of the key features of federalism and federations, and began to identify some of the prerequisites for the success of federations. They were followed by the contributions of 19th century historians, legal scholars and others who were interested in the practice of federal government throughout the history of western civilization, the strengths and weaknesses of federal systems, the motives and forces that lead communities to form federations, and the processes by which federations evolve and develop.

Following a relative dearth of new contributions to the federalism literature in the early 20th century and the inter-war years, a renewed interest in federalism due to the experiences of World War II resulted in new and important publications that launched the contemporary intellectual debate on federalism immediately following the end of the war. Often focused on comparative analyses of federal government systems in different countries and on identifying different forms, including hybrid forms, of federalism, the contemporary debate initially maintained the strongly legalistic and institutional approach that characterized the earlier literature. But this exclusive focus on law and institutions soon gave way to approaches that emphasized constitutionalism; that considered social, political, and cultural forces as important factors that shape federations; that recognized the dynamic and flexible nature of federalism as well as the variations of the federal principle that can be found in different federations; and that attempted to explain how and why some federations flourish and others fail.

This summary will focus on four areas that are among those which have received attention in the contemporary literature on federalism: The definition of federalism and the characteristics of federal systems; the motives for forming federations; intergovernmental and fiscal relations within federations; and the factors and principles that cause federations to succeed or to fail.

Definition of Federalism

Not surprisingly, a considerable amount of debate has been devoted to describing and defining federal systems over the years. Although different authors have occasionally used different terminology to describe systems that qualify as federations and despite the increased emphasis on the diversity of federal structures and processes in different federations, there is general agreement in the literature on the key features that distinguish federal from unitary systems. They include the existence of two or more levels of government that each act directly on their citizens and derive their authority from the constitution; a constitution that cannot be unilaterally changed by one level of government; formal constitutional distribution of legislative and executive authority, along with the allocation of revenue resources such that each level of government can realistically exercise autonomy; representation of distinct regional views in federal institutions, often through a federal second legislative chamber with a composition that is designed to represent regional interests; courts or other institutions that rule on the interpretation of the constitution; and processes, institutions and practices that enable intergovernmental collaboration on policy areas where different levels of government share responsibility.

The literature also recognizes the differences between constitutions and the practical processes through which constitutions are applied, which are often the results of political practices and realities. Federations are not only distinguished by the features mentioned above, but also by federal processes characterized by a strong disposition to democratic procedures; non-centralization and multiple centres of decision making; political bargaining in decisions making; and the respect for constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Finally, the comparative analyses conducted by many scholars since the 1950s of federalism and the forms it takes in different federations identify different areas where wide variations can be observed between federations. These include the distribution of legislative and administrative responsibilities between levels of government; the allocation of taxing powers and financial resources; the degree of centralization or de-centralization, including the degree of economic integration; and the electoral system, to name only a few. 

The Motives for Forming Federations

In addition to the meaning of federalism, an obvious interest of research into federalism is to understand what causes communities to form federations, or existing countries that were previously not federations to opt to transition towards a federal system. Because scholars have long identified defence and security as the most important factors underlying unions of states or confederations, a body of literature emerged in the decades following World War II that extends this viewpoint to federations and focuses on military concerns and foreign affairs as the main motives behind the adoption of federal structures. More specifically, these contributions explain federalism as the culmination of the desire of some politicians to expand their territorial control to gain military or diplomatic strength, the willingness of other politicians to give up some independence in exchange for better protection from real or perceived external or internal threats or military and diplomatic gains, and a resulting "bargain" between constituent units that enter into a union which they all see as beneficial to them.

However, this simple approach with its understanding of federalism as a purely political matter does not always withstand scrutiny when the history of the formation of federations, and the occasional temporary suspension of the federal system, is examined for different countries that have adopted a federal model of governments. Other contributions to the literature uses a comparative historical approach to show the multitude of motives behind federalism, using the histories of federalism in Switzerland, Germany, India, Malaysia, or other countries as case studies. These contributions acknowledge that defence and security are often among the incentives that bring communities together to form federal unions but are often only one component in a complex set of motives that lead to the development of federal systems. Social issues, economic interests, cultural factors, and the geographical size of some countries are among the key areas that emerge as important reasons for the desirability of a federal arrangement and that have been studied extensively.

A related strand in the literature that is especially important in the current context, including with respect to federalism in Iraq, is that which focuses on ethnic/national, religious, or linguistic diversity within countries, and how federalism is a means by which different regions that differ in their ethnic, religious, and/or linguistic characteristics can be given some level of autonomy while remaining unified as constituent units of a liberal-democratic nation state. These questions became more relevant and gained renewed attention as an increasing number of multinational countries such as Russia, Belgium, Spain, South Africa and others adopted federalism or strong federal elements in their constitutions in recent decades in an attempt to give more autonomy to regions characterized by different ethnic or linguistic identities. Research in this area often examines how multinational or multicultural federations become national states and develop a national identity, the interaction within such federations between unifying and segregating forces, and how federalism can accommodate and reconcile multiple national identities and aspirations within the same country. 

Intergovernmental and Fiscal Relations within Federations

Among the key characteristics of federal system is the existence of two or more levels of government that derive their authority from the constitution, the constitutional distribution of legislative and administrative authority among these levels of government, and the allocation of revenue resources among the different levels of government such that they can exercise their authority with some level of autonomy. Not surprisingly, federalism scholars have taken an interest in how the different levels of government within a federation collaborate in areas where their authorities overlap, and in how fiscal resources are allocated and managed. This has resulted in many theoretical debates and empirical studies about intergovernmental relations within federations, fiscal federalism, and related structures and processes.

The literature on intergovernmental relations in federations emphasizes formal structures designed to enable the interaction between levels of government as well as practices and conventions that evolve organically and change flexibly in response to the practical needs of federal processes. Studies have paid attention to executive mechanisms, legislative mechanisms, and judicial mechanisms of intergovernmental relations; how different executive types affect intergovernmental relations; and how the same initiatives or regulations, such as United Nations or other international regulations, have been implemented and their related responsibilities assigned to different levels of government in different federations. Some authors have also contributed discussions on contemporary intergovernmental relations in specific countries that are based less on academic studies and more on ongoing public debate, observable trends, or specific policy issues that have garnered public attention. To use Canada as an example, some of these discussions focused on adapting Canadian federalism to 21st century realities, recent success and failures of intergovernmental collaboration in Canada, and the role of municipalities in contemporary federal practices in Canada.

While fiscal federalism is sometimes treated as one of many components of intergovernmental relations in federations, the complexity and the occasionally technical nature of fiscal relations and fiscal arrangements, as well as the fact that fiscal federalisms straddles the boundaries of several scholarly disciplines, have given rise to a distinct sub-specialty focused on fiscal federalism within the literature on intergovernmental relations. Studies on fiscal federalism examine a wide range of questions, for example mechanisms for fiscal transfers, the taxation systems in federations, horizontal and vertical fiscal imbalances or "fiscal gaps", and fiscal decentralization and its measurement, among other topics. 

Success and Failure of Federations

Debate about federalism, what it means, and why it is used in some countries as a model of government naturally leads to interest in understanding the success and failure of federations. There are two main questions that the literature on the success and failure of federalism in different countries attempts to answer: How to define success and failure in federations, and what leads federations to succeed or to fail.

Beginning in the late 1960s, researchers recognized that it is too simplistic to determine whether a federation succeeded or failed solely on the basis of whether or not one or more constituent units seceded or how long the federation endures. Partly inspired by the experience of some of the new federations established in the post-war years, comparative studies showed that federations can eventually disintegrate or lose one or more of their constituent units while still achieving some of the goals that these units originally sought to achieve through federalism. Further, communities can remain parts of one country that is legally a federation but that fails to develop federal institutions and processes and that becomes a federation in name only. A literature therefore emerged in the second half of the 20th century that focuses on conceptualizing successes and failures in federations and on identifying factors that can be examined to assess the political health of a given federation, whether the principles of federalism are effectively operating in the federation, and whether the federation has succeeded in realizing benefits that should be expected from a federal system of government.

Concurrently, research also looked at what makes federations succeed or fail. Again relying heavily on the comparative method, studies focused on identifying factors that make success either likely or improbable. Contributions to this literature discuss the pre-conditions or "pre-requisites" that enable federations to succeed; economic, social, historical, and cultural endogenous and exogenous factors that can be expected to either facilitate or frustrate the development of robust federal institutions or processes; the important elements of the political culture and the political system that are needed to support federalism; and the institutional safeguards and mechanisms that can help prevent governments within a federation from transgressing into each other's authority.

Selected References

Anderson, G., Federalism - An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Bednar, J., The Robust Federation: Principles of Design (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009)

Bermeo, N., "A New Look at Federalism: The Import of Institutions", Journal of Democracy, 13 (2002), 96-110

Burgess, M. and Gagnon, A.-G., Federal Democracies (Routledge 2015)

Burgess, M., Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice (Routledge 2006),%20Michael%20-%20Comparative%20Federalism%20Theory%20and%20practice.pdf

Burgess, M., In Search of the Federal Spirit: New Comparative Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Cameron, D., "The structures of Intergovernmental Relations", International Social Science Journal, 53 (2001), 121-127

Courchene, T.J., Allan, J. R., Leuprecht, C. and Verrelli, N. (Ed.), The Federal Idea: Essays in Honour of Ronald L. Watts (Institute on Intergovernmental Relations 2011)

DiGiacomo, G. and Flumian, M. (Eds.), The Case for Centralized Federalism (Ottawa: Ottawa University Press, 2010)

Dion, S., Le pari de la franchise: Discours & écrits dur l'unité canadienne (McGill-Queens University Press, 1999)

Dion, S., "Nos deux fédérations: une évolution différente, des défis communs", in S. Dion, Le pari de la franchise: Discours & écrits dur l'unité canadienne (McGill-Queens University Press, 1999)

Dion, S., "Le caractère decentralisé de la fédération canadienne", in S. Dion, Le pari de la franchise: Discours & écrits dur l'unité canadienne (McGill-Queens University Press, 1999)

Dixit, A. and Londregan, J., "Fiscal Federalism and Redistributive Politics", Journal of Public Economics, 68 (1998), 153-180

Elazar, D. J., Exploring Federalism (University of Alabama Press, 1991),307.aspx

Franck, T.M. (Ed.), Why Federations Fail (London: London University Press, 1968)

Friedrich, C. J., Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America (Waltham, MA: Blaisdell Publishing, 1968)

Gagnon, A.-G. and Tully, J. (Eds.), Multinational Democracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Galligan, B., "Comparative Federalism", The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions, 2008

Gauvin, J.-P., "Les relations intergouvernmentales canadiennes: gage de succés ou d'échec ?", Policy Options (2012)

Gibbins, R., "Federal Societies, Institutions and Politics" in H. Bakvis and W.M Chandler (Eds), Federalism and the Role of the State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), Chap. 2, 18.

Gibbins, R., "Federalism and Regional Alienation" in M. Westmacott and H. Mellon (Eds), Challenges to Canadian Federalism (Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1998)

Gibbins, R., "Federalism in the 21st Century: Defining the common economic space", Policy Options (2007)

Hueglin, T.O. and Fenna, A., Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry (University of Toronto Press, 2015)

Kymlicka, W., Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Lenihan, D.G et al., "Adapting Constitutional Roles and Responsibilities in the 21st Century", Policy Options (2007)

Livingston, W.S., "A Note on the Nature of Federalism", Political Science Quarterly, 67 (1952), 81-95

Makiya, K., "A Model for Post-Saddam Iraq", Journal of Democracy, 14 (2003), 5-12

Oates, W. E., "On the Evolution of Fiscal Federalism: Theory and Institutions", National Tax Journal, 61 (2008), 313-334

OECD, Institutions of Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations: Challenges Ahead (OECD 2015);jsessionid=amu5r2bts33p.x-oecd-live-03

Opeskin, B. R., "Mechanisms for Intergovernmental Relations in Federations", 2001, International Social Science Journal, 53 (2001), 129-138

Parker, J., Comparative Federalism and Intergovernmental Agreements: Analyzing Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States (Routledge: 2015)

Riker, W. H., "Six Books in Search of a Subject or Does Federalism Exist and Does it Matter?, Comparative Politics, 2 (1969), 135-146

Scott, K., Federalism: A Normative Theory and Its Practical Relevance (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011)

Tamir, Y., Liberal Nationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)

Watts, R. L., New Federations: Experiments in the Commonwealth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966)

Watts, R.L., Comparing Federal Systems (Institute on Intergovernmental Relations, 2008)

Weaver, R. K., "A New Look at Federalism: Electoral Rules and Governability", Journal of Democracy, 13 (2002), 111-125

Weingast, B. R., "Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: The Implications of Fiscal Incentives", Journal of Urban Economics, 65 (2009), 279.293

Wheare, K.C., Federal Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) 

A vision of strength in diversity
Features of Federalism