A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, edited by Robert E, Goodwin and Philip Pettit, 1993.



In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, federations became a widely used constitutional form. They were rare before the nineteenth century and it may be that they will become less attractive in the twenty-first century. But for now they are well approved. And this is surprising because this era has also been an era of nationalism when the nation-state, the sovereign political organization of the folk, is also well approved. These two forms are in some ways contradictory: nation-states derive from, justify, and separate out a single ethnic group, while federations may -- and often do -- bring together political units with different ethnic bases. So a difficult problem for interpreting federalism is to explain the modern approval of this pragmatic, instrumental constitution in an era that embraces simultaneously the emotional and often irrational loyalties of nationalism.

To begin, just what is federalism or the notion of government by federation? One elementary feature is a two-tier government. A set of constituent governments acknowledge that a federal government has authority over all their territory and peoples for those functions covering the whole territory, while they retain for themselves those functions related just to their own territories. But, of course, all governments -- except those with tiny populations -- are decentralized with at least two tiers. So the number of tiers cannot be the distinguishing feature of federalism.

If we take the word seriously, it must depend on an agreement. Its Latin root foedus is an agreement or covenant, but it is a very special kind of agreement because foedus is also fides or trust. So by its root a federation is a bargain about government, a bargain based, however, not on an enforcement procedure, but on simple trust itself. Ordinary bargains or contracts depend on a judiciary to punish reneging. But the agreement to create a judiciary can hardly depend on what is yet to be created. So the special covenant of a federation is necessarily something continuously advantageous to all parties. When all are known to benefit, then each can reasonably rely on the others to keep the agreement. This is enforcement by rational mutual confidence in each other.

The content of this agreement is the division of functions among tiers. All governments are organized in tiers, but federations embody the arrangement of tiers in a permanent agreement. It ensures that governments at the constituent and central tiers always exist and retain their assigned duties. Governments that are not federations can reorganize the local units at will, destroying old regional units and creating new ones. But in federations the constituent units have agreed with each other that each will retain its identity and its unique functions.

Thus federalism is a constitutionally determined tier-structure. If its constitutional feature is ignored, then it is merely some particular arrangement for decentralization. Unfortunately, in recent years students of policy (especially economists) have so treated it, thereby overlooking the whole point of federalism; namely that the tiered structure cannot be arbitrarily revised.

To visualize this concept of federalism, consider a set of governments each with its own territory. At one extreme they can be totally independent of each other. If they undertake concerted action, however, they at least need institutions to execute it. The simplest such institution is an alliance, where all the decision-making power continues to reside in the independent governments, but where there is also some executive authority to carry out the (usually unanimously) agreed action. Alliances are, however, often fragile and ineffective. So if the independent governments want permanence and efficiency, they may federate and thereby create a central government with independent decision-making authority for some functions. Finally, at the extreme of integration, the independent governments may simply vanish into the imperial centre. So we can set forth the scale of centralization in figure 26.1 and thereby demarcate federation from other forms fairly sharply.
Extreme decentralization Extreme centralization

Independent  Alliance  Federation Unitary state or empire
Peripheralized         Centralized

Figure 26.1
Degrees of centralization

For a federation to exist, the central government must have authority to decide on action for at least one function entirely on its own and without reference to the preferences of the constituent governments. (If the central government cannot do this much, then the organization is at best an alliance.) On the other hand, the constituent governments must also have authority to decide on action for at least one function entirely independently of the centre and each other. (If they cannot do this much, then the organization is completely unitary.) Federations thus cover a wide range of divisions of functions. Those close to the alliance end of the scale are called peripheralized, and those close to the unitary end are called centralized.

The complexity of this description and the lack of clarity in the assignments of functions suggest an obvious question: Why on earth would framers of constitutions adopt so difficult a political form? The answer is, of course: so that the rulers of a set of independent states can accomplish some objective that is not feasible independently or in alliance. Of course, the rulers of one state might incorporate other states into their state in order to aggregate resources. Indeed, throughout recorded history this is what has usually happened. Imperial expansion is a far more frequent method of aggregation than is federalism. But imperial expansion is costly, if, that is, the potential victims resist. So occasionally ambitious expansionists federate rather than conquer.

What goals are sufficiently desired to lead to federation? The goal most frequently observed is military, though, of course, that goal is always instrumental. Wars are not usually fought for their own sake, for the pure joy of fighting and dying, but aggressively for the sake of trade, territory, plunder and tribute, or defensively, for the sake of resistance and independence. Success in war depends, however, on resources. So the aggregation of resources for war is the primary, though instrumental, motive for federation. Indeed, the rulers of all successful federations, that is, federations that have lasted more than a few years, have initially displayed some kind of military purpose.

One frequent purpose has been rebellion or civil war. Subordinate units of an empire rebel simultaneously and then federate for better resistance. Thus the Dutch republic facilitated the rebellion of the provinces in the Netherlands against the Spanish dominion; the United States facilitated the rebellion of some American colonies against Great Britain; and the several Spanish American federations (Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Gran Columbia, the Central American Federation, the latter two of which were shortlived) facilitated the rebellion against Spain. Another frequent purpose has been to defend against the imperial ambition of neighbours; for example, the Swiss confederation (against Habsburg ambition), the Soviet Union (against a potential Western threat which Lenin preferred to meet by seducing the non-Russian provinces rather than by conquering them, which he probably could not have done anyway), the Canadian confederation (against the threat of invasion from the United States, which had occurred thrice previously and seemed again potential at the end of its civil war), the Australian commonwealth (as against the new -- in 1900 -- Pacific imperialism of Japan and Germany), etc. Still a third military purpose has been to absorb neighbours in order to prepare for aggressive expansion. Thus Yugoslavia became a federation to further Tito's plans for a middle European empire (but Stalin beat him to the draw). And a fourth military purpose is to absorb neighbours, with less cost than conquest, mollifying them with the appearance of continuing sovereignty. The Delian league of the Athenian empire is an ancient example. Dual monarchies also have this character: the Austro-Hungarian empire in the nineteenth century and perhaps even Britain in the eighteenth. Surely the German empire, which absorbed Bavaria and Wurttemberg after 1871, is a clear-cut example. And the Indian federation of today proved an excellent way to absorb the princely states. The Malay federation, turned Malaysia, absorbed Singapore and Brunei, and the Nigerian federation enabled the North to subdue the East. Of course, many cases fall in two categories. India seems best placed in the fourth category, but it could just as easily fit in second (in the sense of defending against Pakistan) and Malaysia surely also was defending against an aggressive Indonesia.

This outline of categories of military rationales for federation, within which I have included most well-known federations, makes it clear that at their initiation they all had some military purpose. This observation is strengthened by considering the instances of federations that didn't work; i.e. that were abandoned within a few years, returning to independent states or becoming fully unitary. These failures reflected the lack of any military purpose, defective structures (e.g. one large and dominant unit, as in the USSR or the short-lived Egyptian-Syrian federation or very few units as in New Zealand) or both.

Many of these failed federations were initially established by the British government, which also established some successful ones. After observing the success of the United States, the first federation formed from previous British colonies, and after successfully acquiescing in Canada and Australia, the British government repeatedly urged its newly independent or about-to-be independent colonies to federate. Many did so. Canada, Australia and India remain federations. But New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies and Rhodesia-Nyasaland all abandoned the federal form. Nigeria is an equivocal case: it has been a federation for two brief periods, otherwise a centralized dictatorship. Two of these governments (Pakistan and Nigeria) had very defective structures (i.e. very few units and one dominant unit) and found they needed a unitary form for civil war. With geographically separated parts, Pakistan broke up into two non-federated independent states. Nigeria, with only three states, had a defective structure, revealed when one unit rebelled and civil war ensued. When again a federation, Nigeria restructured into twenty-one states, though this did not prevent the re-establishment of dictatorship.

The other failed ex-British federations abandoned federalism because there was simply no military reason for them to be federal. There were no enemies on the scene and hence they did not need to worry about maintaining internal order. Non-British federations that were born dead displayed the same range of reasons for failure: the French-sponsored Mali federation in West Africa had no military rationale and hence collapsed into unitary governments; the Javanese immediately rejected the Dutch-sponsored Indonesian federation, thinking it a Dutch trick and preferring to integrate by conquest; and several Spanish-American federations collapsed as militarily unnecessary. In general, the history of failed federations implies about the same point as the history of successful ones: initially, there must be a compelling reason to aggregate resources and this compulsion is invariably military, though sometimes framers prefer imperial to federal institutions to solve the military problems at, perhaps, less cost.

As the previous paragraphs indicate, federations have appeared ever since ancient times: in ancient Greece (and some say in ancient Israel), in medieval Europe (the Swiss, Suabian and north Italian leagues), and in early modern Europe (the Dutch republic). But federalism began to flourish in the nineteenth century with imperial Germany as well as with the spin-offs of Spanish, Portuguese and British empires. The pace accelerated in the twentieth century with the break-up of empires, bringing new African, Asian and European federations.

What accounts for this burst of federalism? One step is the invention of centralized federalism in the United States in the late eighteenth century. The other is the collapse of empires. The invention provided a viable organization that turned out to be useful in partially reassembling the debris of empire. Imperial administrators organize political units appropriate for their purposes and these are typically too small to be militarily effective by themselves. But a centralized federation can aggregate resources and, given its invention and availability, framers of constitutions for ex-imperial units used it frequently. Of course, not all the contemporary federations derive from collapsed empires. But even those that do not have adopted the centralized form. Switzerland reorganized in 1848 and Germany and Austria after the first and second World

Wars on the centralized model. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia - if their claims to be federations are justifiable - would probably never have adopted a federal structure if the centralized form had not been available. Recent 'federalizing' movements (e.g. Belgium) would probably make no headway without the centralized model. So the invention of centralized federalism is crucial to the contemporary use and approval of federalism and thus therefore deserves explanation.



When the thirteen colonies that formed the United States rebelled against Britain, they initially formed a loose, peripheralized federation. Though the main organ (that is, the Continental Congress) of what became this federation did declare independence (1776), send ambassadors, organize an army and borrow money, it was kept on tight rein by the new state governments which, as it turned out, really controlled taxes and military resources. A peripheralized constitution, the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, embodied the principles of state control so that decisions on national policy were really made in the state capitals. Nationalist leaders, who in fact controlled the federal government from 1781 onwards, were deeply discontented with this state of affairs. They tried several times to amend the Articles modestly, but failed because of the unanimity requirement characteristic of peripheralized federations. Then in a bold move they attempted a complete revision of the constitution, based on a proposal by James Madison for a wholly national government, entirely uninfluenced by the states and fully in control of them. This would have been a government as unitary as any in the world. Madison's proposal was revised to give the states unique functions and an independent juristic identity and also a role in supplying national officials. Thus, by way of a compromise between nationalists and provincials, these nationalists created a new kind of centralized federation, one with almost the governing strength of a unitary government, but also with unique functions and perpetual guarantees for the constituent units. It was this combination of features that rendered centralized federalism so popular in succeeding centuries.

The foregoing discussion suggests that people have welcomed federalism for purely instrumental reasons. In fact, however, many political philosophers have justified the federal form on moral grounds: that it promotes liberty by allowing freedom of action for small groups or units, or, more generally, that it limits big government and thus promotes individual freedom.

There is no question that federalism restricts the ability of the central government to prescribe public policy. The constitution prohibits central government action in functions reserved for the constituent units. Indeed, when the central government ignores these prohibitions, as, for example, in the Soviet Union from a few months after its establishment to its dissolution in 1991, then federalism is itself destroyed. A dictatorship really cannot be a federation. When the central government denies omnipotence and guarantees constituent governments unique functions, then groups that lose nationally have a chance to win locally. With such compensation for national losers, the society as a whole is not zero-sum. In that sense, federalism really does promote individual freedom.

It is possible, however, to exaggerate the freedom-generating effects of federalism. While the foregoing argument is valid in general, nevertheless local freedom of action may not in fact generate true liberty. The United States offers a perverse example. In 1787 one of the constitutional compromises provided that states govern slavery. After a generation, however, the northern, slave-free, more populous region deeply regretted that concession. In the southern, slaveholding, less populous region, federalism came to mean protection of slaveholders' property rights and the absence of freedom for the black-skinned slaves. As a bare majority, the northern region lacked the two-thirds and three-quarters majority for constitutional amendments. Therefore, the only feasible method of eliminating slavery was the civil war from 1861 to 1865. While that war did end slavery, it still left such matters as voting rights in the local jurisdictions. Within a generation after the civil war, southern states had again repressed the former slaves. Again federalism, the supposed protection of minorities, worked out as a device for condoning repression. Only in 1954-65 did the north become sufficiently populous and sympathetic to eliminate that second repression. Thus for well over half its history federalism in the United States actually meant freedom for some southern whites to oppress blacks, hardly the conventional picture of federalism as freedom. Fortunately, in the recent generation, however, federalism in the United States has served as an addition to the separation of powers and has thus, on the whole, served liberty. Taking together all federations in the world at all times, I believe that federalism has been a significant force for limited government and hence for personal freedom.

Owing to the success of federalism both as an instrument to aggregate resources and as a protection for liberty, many political idealists today hope to adopt it to new circumstances, such as a federal world or a federal Europe. If the description in this article of the origin of federations is even remotely correct, a federal world is a chimera. There must be a reason to aggregate resources, some external (or internal) enemy or object of aggression, or else no one would be willing to give up independence for aggregation. But a federal world precludes an enemy or an opportunity for attack and hence also precludes a reason for aggregation. A federal Europe is a more complicated case. So long as the United States and the Soviet Union continued the Cold War, there was reason for Europe to extricate itself from that conflict by federating. Now (1993) the threat has eased, Western Europe need not fear invasion from the East and it is not clear what can be gained by federation, except perhaps a European autarchy that shuts out Asiatic and American trade goods from the European market. This is, however, a perverse goal more harmful to Europeans than anyone else. It is difficult to imagine a long-term self-flagellation by federating. Consequently, it seems to me that the future of a united Europe is as chimerical as a united world. In any event, the success or failure of the move to federalize Europe will be a good test of the validity of this argument about the nature of federalism.

See also: 3 history; 4 sociology; 5 economics; 6 political science; 7 legal studies; 8 anarchism; 11 liberalism; 14 autonomy; 15 community; 16 contract and consent; i 7 constitutionalism

and the rule of law; 18 corporation and syndicalism; 19 democracy; 23 efficiency; 2 5 equality; 27 international affairs; 3o power; 34 secession and nationalism; 36 state; 37 toleration and fundamentalism.

;; IS



Davis, S. R.: The Federal Principle: A Journey Through Time in Quest of a Meaning (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1978). Dye, T. R.: American Federalism: Competition among Governments (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1990).

Elazar, D. J.: The American Partnership (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). Riker, W. H.: Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964).

-: 'Federalism', Handbook of Political Science, ed. Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W.

Polsby, vol. 5, Governmental Institutions and Processes (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesiey, 1975). PP- 93-172.

Wheare, K. D.: Federal Government (London: Oxford University Press, 3rd edn, 1956).