What is the difference between unitary and federal systems?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In a unitary system, the central government has all the power.  In a federal system, some powers are given to the central government and other powers are given to the lower levels of government (provinces or states).

In a unitary system, the central government gets to decide what powers, if any, to give to the lower levels of government.  Even if it gives them some power, it can always take it back.  The lower levels of government have no right to their power.

In a federal system, they have a right to their powers.  The central government cannot just take those powers away.  Typically, as with the US, there is a written constitution that tells what powers go to the national government and what powers go to the lower levels.

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beateach | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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Put simply, the difference between a unitary and a federal government is that a unitary government puts its power in one central government while in a federal system the governing power is divided into federal and local governing bodies that connect to the national government.

The Unitary governing system:

• Places its power in one central governing system

• Very little political power exists outside the central government

• The powers of this governing system are uniformly applied throughout

• All major government decisions are made by the central government

• If smaller government units are established they are controlled by the central government and can be abolished by such without their consent

• Many unitary governments are either dictatorships or totalitarian

• France, although Democratic, is governed by a Unitarian body

• Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Barbados, Morocco, and Spain are examples of unitary monarchy government

• China, Afghanistan, Italy, Zambia, and the Ukraine are examples of unitary republic government

The Federal Governing System:

• Distributes power from the national government to local/state governments to adopt laws that are reasonable to the country as a whole and the localities

• Power may be diffused in the federal system

• Multi-national states often have a federal system

• Larger countries often adopt the federal system since constituents may live in areas remote to the location of the central government

• Ethnicities with in a country may lead to a federal system as their rules and laws may vary. An example of this is the small country of Belgium which balances the needs two distinct ethnic groups

• The United States has a federal governing system with a national government and Constitution, in conjunction with states governments and constitutions

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thetall's profile pic

thetall | (Level 3) Educator

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A federal government fosters a power sharing pact between the national government and the member states’ local governments. This type of system seeks to ensure resources are closer to the citizens and so it is used in large nations to ensure equitable sharing of resources. There is also a high level of control that can be exercised within the state by the local institutions without interference from the central government. The laws established by the local government should be in line with the fundamental laws of the central government. It is important to note that some states can establish laws that are not existent in other states. Examples of countries practicing the federal system include the US and Belgium.

A Unitary government is characterized by centralization of power and authority is mostly exercised by the national government. Resources are shared from the central government to the different regions within the country. The different regions within the country may at most times lack the authority to establish their own laws especially in purely unitary systems. Examples of countries practicing the unitary system of government include France and Israel.

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matthewhansel's profile pic

matthewhansel | In Training Educator

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In a unitary system, the central government has all of the power.

In a federal system, power is shared between the levels of government (Federal, State, Local).

There are three basic systems of government: Unitary, Confederal and Federal.  Over the course of the history of the United States, we have have used all three systems of government (eventually choosing a Federal system as outlined in the United States Constitution).

In a unitary system the central/national government has almost all of the power.  Great Britain (The United Kingdom) is an example of a unitary system.  All of the political power is held in London with the British Parliament.  Other levels of government only have the power delegated to them by the central government.  So, while Scotland has some power to control local affairs, they are unable to govern independently, without first seeking the approval of the British Parliament.  Most nation/state are unitary systems.  Generally speaking, countries with unitary systems of government also tend to be smaller geographically.  It is much easier for a central government to exercise authority over a smaller area.

A federal system, is a system of government in which power is divided by a written constitution between a central government (federal) and other levels of government (state and local).  Each level must have some domain in which its policies are dominant and some genuine constitutional guarantee of its authority.  Using a modern day, controversial issue, decriminalization of marijuana, we can see federalism at work.  At the federal level, marijuana use/possession/growing is illegal.  However, 5 states have recently enacted legislation to allow for the recreational use of marijuana.  Because of the autonomy provided to them under the Constitution, they are able to pass laws that decriminalize this behavior without having to seek approval or permission from the federal government.  In political science, this is referred to as allowing the individual states to become "little laboratories of democracy".  Under this constitutional authority, states can experiment with various types of public policy, which might then cause the federal government to use that state policy as a model for a new, national policy.  Examples of this include the creation of Medicare/Medicaid based on a program in Minnesota and the creation of the Affordable Care Act, which was heavily based on a program in Massachusetts.

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