Unitary vs Federal

Difference Between Unitary and Federal Systems of Government

The difference between a unitary system and a federal one centers on the answer to the question of whether there are territorial units within a state that have specific powers that the central government cannot take away.

A unitary system Opens in new window of government is a top-down authoritarian government in which the central government is ultimately supreme; being that it makes all laws and decisions for the entire country. In this approach, the territorial units exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate. This form of government includes monarchy, dictatorship, fascist and socialist.

Federal system Opens in new window of government is a bottom up government approach where power and authority is shared between the central government and lower levels of government. In this approach, the central government makes laws in certain subjects; states and sometimes local governments control other issues.

One way to think about this is that sovereignty is shared in a federal system between the central government and regional governments within the state.

Basically, there are three versions of this: Unitarian, Federation, and Confederation.

The Unitarian Government

A Unitarian system of government is one in which the central government has authority over all lower levels of government, and those lower levels have no powers reserved for them. The Unitarian government wields the sole sovereign authority. It can delegate or withhold authorities to regional governments, by simple legislation. Examples include the 50 States, of the United States, the UK, and as far as I know, every country on the planet, except the EU.

The Federation Government

A federation is a system that divides up power between the central government and lower levels of government or the territorial units. It provides lower levels of government with designated powers that the central government cannot take away.

The USA has a federal system. States control education, medical and legal practices, most business licensing, and other areas. States can impose stricter pollution limits than the federal government.

Pranab aptly nails the definition of federation.

  • Federal form of government connotes such governments which are formed by the contractual union of erstwhile independent states, consequently, the governments in federal setup are often identified in two levels, first at the central and another at the states.

The USA has a federal system. States control education, medical and legal practices, most business licensing, and other areas. States can impose stricter pollution limits than the federal government.

The Confederation

A confederation is an affiliation between two or more states not involving a strong central government. The states involved maintain the vast majority of their sovereignty, though they do surrender some of it to the agreements that establish the confederal arrangement.

In a true Confederation or Federation, the sovereign authority resides in the People or the Member States. And should the contractual union or obligations be dissolved, the member States would return to being independent countries.