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What are the similarities between a unitary and federal government system?

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Federal governments, like that of the United States, have state-governments that operate between the national and the municipal level. The states themselves enjoy a certain degree of independence from the highest level of government. State laws are technically subservient to laws passed at the national level, but it is usually up to the national government to choose whether or not to enforce this. Usually, the lower levels of government are free to make any laws that are not already enumerated or that do not conflict with the laws of higher levels of government. Federal systems allow for a higher degree of civic engagement. It is often easier to engage with smaller municipal and state governments than with the larger national government. This allows citizens to have more of an ability to participate in and influence their local government. This also leads to more transparency in government, as there is usually more citizen oversight at local levels.

Contrast this to a unitary government that does not have lower levels of lawmaking bodies at the state level. All the political power is concentrated in a single body that governs the entire country. Cities and towns may have some local control, but their ability to make and pass local laws is severely limited and almost always must conform with the laws of the central government. Laws that are passed by the central government apply to the entire country and, therefore, may sometimes overlook the local needs of a particular place. Unitary governments tend to be more efficient than federal ones. They are free from the many bureaucratic levels that exist between the different levels of government. Therefore, unitary governments can more quickly pass laws.

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Both unitary and federal government systems can be defined by the relationship between the national government, representing the nation as a whole, and any subnational governments, representing subnational divisions like states or provinces. For example, within the United States of America, the national government is on the level of the nation itself, while each state maintains its own subnational or state-level government. 

Within unitary systems, such as the United Kingdom, the national government is supreme, and the majority of power is centralized within it. The national government delegates powers down to the subnational governments, which then exercise these delegated powers and implement policy decisions that originate within the national government. 

Federal systems, such as the United States, tend to have a weaker national government, with powers distributed among the national and subnational levels. This can sometimes lead to conflicts among jurisdictions. Consider the status of medicinal or recreational marijuana in the United States: it is legalized or decriminalized in a number of states while still remaining illegal on a federal level. 

In both systems, there is a great degree of variability in exactly how power is distributed. The United States was originally designed to have a weaker national government with more autonomous states, but, over the course of its history, the national government has consolidated more power. 

All that said, both systems are quite different in how they distribute power and execute matters of policy and law. In terms of similarity, it may only be possible to say that both systems are ways to administer a nation. Ultimately, the unitary/federal split is chiefly concerned with how power is distributed. How the government is formed, how laws are made, how administrations change—all of this is largely removed from the simple question of how power is distributed among administrative divisions. 

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A unitary system of governance features a strong central authority that controls the power in a country. A federal system of governance is based on the division of power between the national and local governments.

Similarities between the two systems of government include the following:

  • Both the unitary and federal systems of government consider elections as an important aspect of their existence. The two systems extend the opportunity to the citizens and/or different institutions to choose the leaders.
  • The unitary and federal forms of government are both systems of national administration. The administrative responsibility creates a sense of order and direction for the country.
  • The unitary and federal systems of government are both responsible for resource management in line with national administrative obligations.
  • The two systems of government are also responsible for policy formulation and implementation. The policies are important in achieving the set goals and objectives at the national and local levels.
  • The two systems are responsible for representing the peoples’ will and wishes in government.
  • The unitary and federal systems of government are responsible for representing the country in regional and international discussions and agreements.
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There are not necessarily any similarities at all between these two systems other than the fact that both have governments.  These two systems can be quite different.

In a federal system, power is shared (by law) between a national government and local governments (often called state or provincial governments).  Neither level of government can legally take power away from the other level.  In a unitary system, things are different.  The national government is the only government that has the right to exist.  The national government can create local governments and give them powers, but it can always take those powers away.  The national government, in this system, is all-powerful and the local governments (if they exist) only have whatever powers the national government decides that they should have.

From this, we can see that these two have little in common.  Both systems can have national and local governments, but they do not have to.  Both systems can be democratic, but they do not have to be.  The only thing that they have to have in common is that they both have to have a national government of some sort.

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