Federalism is a system of governing that permits two or more entities to share control over the same geographic region. Several countries use this approach to provide social resources and defensive capabilities to the population, although none may use it as extensively as the United States.
Federalism in the U.S. creates multiple layers of government, legislation, and responsibilities for people to follow. The typical framework for a community involves city, county, state, and national structures that all have shared authority over a specific area.
When we look at government systems, the question to ask is this: are federal systems a superior choice to unitary ones?
Most countries adopt federalism as a way to ensure that local needs receive more security from internal or external threats. It allows each community to create structures that meet their needs while still being a part of larger entities.
Several additional advantages and disadvantages of Federalism are notable for how they can potentially impact the average household.
List of the Advantages of Federalism
1. Federalism seeks to create shared power instead of centralizing authority.
Most forms of Federalism try to create a balance throughout the various communities in a country as a way to create equality in the governing processes. Diffusing power to several different layers of authority by creating multiple national divisions and local governing structures, it becomes more challenging for one area of the government to take over a community, state, or nation.
When a government cannot benefit from centralized power, then there are more sporadic issues with individual exploitation that can affect the entire population.
2. It prevents a single individual or group from taking over the government.
Federalism makes it difficult for a single branch or segment of a government to acquire complete control over a community, state, or nation. There is no way to obtain runaway influence in this structure unless voters approve of that process first.
Even when there is a significant majority of one party in the government, Federalism still makes it challenging to generate massive changes that impact the entire population. This structure is one of the principal reasons why most democratic nations choose this form of governing over the other available selections.
3. This governing system promotes an attitude of cooperation.
Different geographic areas have various demands that they must meet to maintain their overall quality of life. This system allows each community to create a foundation that works the best for their needs instead of mandating that every person follows the same set of legal statutes.
If you travel to almost any community in the United States, then you will find a different set of rules and regulations that the local government expects you to follow. Federalism allows us to embrace similarities while encouraging each geographic region to embrace how it is different simultaneously.
4. Federalism encourages each community to be innovative in their governing approaches.
There are opportunities to try different policy approaches to see how they will work because this government structure prefers sharing authority instead of consolidating it. This method creates results that can fall on both sides of the spectrum, allowing us to determine what works well and ideas that aren’t as helpful.
One of the most recent examples of this benefit in the United States involved the expansion of the Medicare program. Governments at the state level could decide if they wanted to join in with this change or set it aside. A total of 17 states agreed to stop this process, although three of them could modify their rules in 2020 to allow for greater participation.
5. This government structure encourages individual participation.
Individuals become more engaged with their government in numerous ways under the structure of Federalism. Elected officials are more like what a citizen is than an official under this method of governing, which means everyone can visit local political offices to communicate their ideas without fear of judgment.
When we have an opportunity to espouse diversity as a society, then it is an occasion to draw upon our strengths to build something amazing. Federalism gives us a chance to do so when other forms of governing focus on retaining power instead of sharing it.
6. Greater efficiencies are available through Federalism.
Federalism creates efficiencies in the governing system because delegation is possible, sharing some of the power with state and local officials. Local legislative bodies get the right to start resolving some of their problems without the threat of interference at the national level.
If Federalism structures were not available, then everyone would receive a standard set of regulations to follow that wouldn’t always apply to every geographical area. The needs of the people living in Portland could be much different than the needs of someone living in Dallas. Encouraging cooperation and sharing allow each community to create governing structures that support local needs without interfering with national priorities.
7. Federalism creates higher levels of responsiveness within the government.
When the government is positioned more closely to its subjects, then the elected officials have a more significant opportunity to offer responsive solutions when there are specific needs to meet. Emergencies, changes in financial requirements, and local developments all receive more support through the structure of laws that would be virtually impossible to develop at the national level.
Local governments can distribute resources much faster than a national agency or centralized structure. That means people can support themselves with the needs that they may require at a moment’s notice. Federalism is the government version of having neighbors help each other in a time of need.
8. This system of governing encourages policy innovation.
The United States often receives the description as being the “laboratory of democracy.’ Each state can learn from the various successes and failures that happen over time, which is an activity that also supports the efforts of the national government. Americans manage a series of contrasting policies that encompass everything from taxation to physician-assisted suicide. This diversity in practices and programs allows people to vote with their feet in addition to the services they provide at the ballot box.
9. Federalism creates a training ground for tomorrow’s officials.
Because each state and community provide its own form of governing, the people who get elected into those positions receive critical training processes that can help them at the national level one day. This structure also ensures that a political party is never entirely out of power since it can consolidate in state legislatures, city councils, and school boards.
This advantage is another reason why more participation tends to happen at these levels. People at the state level are in a better position to handle critical policy concerns since they’re more likely to be familiar with local conditions and regional issues when compared to national-level officials.
10. People can decide to move to geographic areas that support their belief systems.
Although this key point could also be a disadvantage of Federalism, it often acts as a benefit because populations can move to live under governing structures that support their preferences and lifestyle needs. Consider the state that decides to outlaw gambling because it wants to regulate public morality. The people who want the opportunity to wager will simply move to a place where it is not illegal to conduct those activities.
The United States doesn’t require retroactive enforcement of legislation. If you are physically in a location where gambling is permitted, then you can participate in that activity even if it is illegal at your primary address.
List of the Disadvantages of Federalism
1. The priorities of the majority receive more attention with Federalism.
Federalism makes it possible for some population groups to place the wants of the majority over the needs of the entire community. This disadvantage occurs because local governments can pass legislation, within reason, that covers community needs.
The structures of Federalism made slavery and discrimination a continuing issue in the United States until the 1960s. Human trafficking didn’t get outlawed nationally in the U.S. until 2000. This approach to governing was partially accountable for the divide in the 19th century that eventually led to the Civil War because of the preference for slave and free states. When laws get delegated to local communities, there is always the possibility that those rules could be used to harm others one day.
2. Federalism can put the local government at odds with the national one.
Local governments decide to challenge the presence of some specific national regulations by going through the judicial system available to each one. This process involves filing a lawsuit to prevent the implementation of what a geographic region believes is a conceivably harmful provision. Federalism can also get used as a way to replace local laws when they aren’t moving nationally. One of the most significant instances of this issue in recent years involves the decriminalization of cannabis for medicinal and recreational use.
There can be times when obstructing the implementation of national laws is beneficial. The issue here is that any local government can create arbitrary reasons to challenge new laws, and it creates a resolution process that can be lengthy and expensive that taxpayers must support.
3. The government can get structured in specific ways that benefit one demographic.
Most Federalist governments grapple with the problem of providing individual equality to all demographics and social groups. The wealth and gender-based wage gaps are the two economic pain points that the American system struggles to fix in this generation. This issue exists because the top 1% of income earners now own the majority of wealth increases that households have earned since 2009.
Most women make just $0.80 for every $1 a man earns for completing common jobs. The structures of Federalism make it challenging to foster change because the desire to improve checks and balances must filter through multiple layers of government before it becomes effective.
4. Federalism promotes inefficiencies in the governing process.
Although the average person gets used to the structure in time, Americans must navigate between 4-6 different sets of laws every day. These rules can sometimes come into conflict with each other, such as when some states allow for the recreational use of marijuana when the national government does not. It can be challenging to stay in compliance with expectations when such conflicts exist.
The only thing that stops the national government from arresting people for violations that are legal to do in their geographic region is a policy (not a law) that won’t pursue certain individuals. That means multiple government agencies can be working against the best interests of one another, creating confusion and inefficiency in their wake.
5. This government structure can create high levels of uncertainty.
It can be a challenge at times for specific geographic regions to know when and where needed assistance may become available. Whether an incident occurs because of a natural disaster or economic changes, multiple layers of government create a significant amount of bureaucratic navigation. Cutting through the red tape is not always easy, especially if the perspective of the local officials is at odds with those at the national level.
Puerto Rico experienced this disadvantage to Federalism in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The island territory experienced over $90 billion in damages, making it the third-costliest event in U.S. history involving that kind of weather event. Congress had allocated $40 billion to manage the disaster recovery, and the money would only go when officials submitted a series of plans that outlined how the funds would get used after federal approval.
6. The structure of Federalism can create societal polarization.
Much of the polarization that Americans experience today is due to the two-party system of Federalism that exists in the country. When there are only two primary sides from which to choose, it pits one person against another when their opinions are different. Each person can have their own reasons for choosing their party affiliation, which means people get put into a place where their perspectives are right, making the other side default to being wrong.
Having multiple parties instead of two major ones can reduce the impact of this disadvantage of Federalism. The United States has some third-party activity that occurs at local levels, but the impact is negligible on society. Libertarians, the Green Party, and Constitutionalists barely make up 2% of elected officials combined in local governments.
7. Federalism forces the national government to confront local ones on security issues.
Sanctuary cities are a designation that specific communities can institute for themselves in the United States based on their interpretation of immigration law. Communities like Denver, Chicago, Baltimore, and Miami follow specific police procedures that shelter illegal immigrants. These communities do not permit municipal funds or resources to apply to the enforcement of national laws. That typically means that government employees, including law enforcement officers, cannot inquire about a person’s immigration status.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 that proclaimed local governments would only be eligible for specific grants from the Department of Justice is they chose to obey federal immigration laws. The judicial system would eventually rule that the executive order was unconstitutional.
8. It forces local governments to compete with each other for resources.
Federalism can be described as creating a structure that forces local governments to participate in a race to the bottom for goods and services. Each government competes for businesses and investment, putting up offers that have fewer regulations, more financial incentives, and the “best” business climate. That means downward pressure occurs in the economy, contributing to a downfall in the quality of life for the population.
Most states compete with each other by offering tax discounts and regulatory relief, which means the environment can become unhealthy and the quality of care at hospitals declines. Even public schools can be adversely impacted by this disadvantage of Federalism.
9. Federalism can reinforce injustice and undemocratic practices.
Although Federalism works to bring democracy closer to its local population by providing direct control, that structure can work against people in the minority when injustice is the preferred legislative approach. The perseverance of racial segregation in the U.S. southern states for nearly a century after the end of the Civil War is a glaring example of this disadvantage.
This issue is so prevalent in some local societies that George Wallace won the electoral votes of five southern states in a 1968 third-party bid for the Presidency by campaigning specifically for segregation.
The advantages and disadvantages of Federalism show us that when a government shares its power, then the system prevents anyone from becoming too powerful. This system implements a set of checks and balances that ensure elected officials or branches of government cannot overstep their authority on any issue.
That doesn’t mean some branches of government or individuals won’t try to maximize the power they can wield in this system. When the United States initiated airstrikes that killed a prominent Iranian official in January 2020, lawyers for the White House were quick to argue that the Executive branch had the authority to initiate that action without the support of Congress.
Every system of governing faces unique challenges that will generate supporters and critics of the eventual structure. What history teaches us is that people tend to have more freedom instead of less when they aren’t forced to deal with a centralized set of laws, rules, and regulations.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.