The Federal System of Government: Definition, Features, Pros & Cons

Federal Government System: Definition, Benefits, and Limitations

The Federal System of Government

What Is The Federal Government?

K.C. Wheare, a foremost writer on this concept, defined it as:

By the federal principles, I mean the method of dividing powers so that general and regional governments are each within a sphere that is coordinated and independent.

Other definitions are either elaborations or further expositions on the one given by K.C. Wheare.

Walter Bagehot, for instance, notes that a federal government exists when the powers of government for a community are divided substantially according to the principle that there is a single independent authority for the whole area in respect of some matter and that there are independent regional authorities for other matters, each set of authorities being co-ordinate with and not subordinate to the other within its own prescribed sphere.

Appadorai (1975) stated that "a federal state is one in which there is a central authority that represents the whole and acts on behalf of the whole in external affairs and in such internal affairs as are held in common interest, and in which there are also provincial or state authorities with powers of legislation and administration within the sphere allotted to them by the constitution.".

What these definitions have tried to show is that a federal government denotes a method of power sharing. Secondly, the citizens are subjected to two levels of authority, one acting at the center and one at the regional, provincial, or local level: Thirdly, this power division between the two levels of government must be constitutionalized.

Qualities of a Federal System

In light of the foregoing, K. C. Wheare suggested what he called some uncompromising qualities of a federal system.

  • The division of powers among the levels of government.
  • A written constitution that clearly shows the division.
  • The powers to amend this constitution are to be exercised by both levels of government acting in cooperation.
  • Existence of an independent judiciary
  • Both levels of government are to be financially self-supporting since financial subordination puts an end to federalism.
  • Coordinate the supremacy of the two levels of government with regards to their respective allotted functions.

K. C. Wheare no doubt attracted many criticisms for his uncompromising stance. Foremost among these critics were Carl Friedrich and William Livingstone. Wheare's definition was criticized as being legalistic, inflexible, unrealistic, and unworkable, as well as neglecting certain economic, social, cultural, and political factors that actually affect the dynamics of the federal arrangement.

Wheare's definition stresses formal institutional requirements explicitly as if they are defining characteristics of federalism, or perhaps logically built into the meaning of federalism. We can further contend that these institutional criteria are not defining characteristics of federalism because:

  • Existing federal systems of government do not all embody these criteria, and even where they do, there is usually variation among them.
  • Some unitary governments are known to possess some of the institutional characteristics, such as a written constitution and a bicameral legislature.

The deficiencies of Wheare's definition he attributed to his excessive reliance on what he assumed to be the essential features of federalism in the United States of America, thus falling prey to a kind of historicism.

Against this backdrop, Carl Friedrich and William Livingstone introduced a sociological dimension to the concept of federalism. In the views of Livingstone, the essence of federalism lies not in the institutional or constitutional structure but in society itself. He defined the federal government "as a device by which the federal qualities of society are articulated and protected." He further notes that federalism is not an absolute but a relative term, as there is no specific point at which a society ceases to be unified and becomes diversified.

The differences are of degree rather than kind. All countries fall somewhere in a spectrum that runs from a theoretically wholly integrated society at one extreme to a theoretically wholly diversified society at the other. This view was shared by Carl Friedrich, who argued that "federalism is a process by which unity and diversity are politically organized, and the degree of federalism depends on sociological rather than legal forces."

He further contends that societal forces do affect the integrative and disintegrative processes of federalism. Not minding the amplification given to the federal concept by Friedrich and Livingstone, by recognizing the societal forces that tend to shape the form and content of federalism, their contribution still attracted criticism.

For instance, it is the view of critics like Vare and Birch that the definitions of federalism given by Livingstone and Friedrich are so broad that any kind of system can find a niche within it, even states that are obviously unitary, like Britain. In other words, it does not offer a standard reference point for describing a system as federal or otherwise.

In any case, in light of the operation of federal systems in various parts of the world, it is the view of many scholars that the idealization of power as formulated by Wheare and his adherents only operates at the level of the constitution, as what most states practice is cooperation rather than dualism. Significant cooperation between the various levels of government has become the defining characteristic of federalism rather than rigid compartmentalization of power.

Despite the tenacity of the 'co-operation thesis', one cannot wish away the fact that the world's legal framework serves as a guide for governmental operations. The societal forces, when articulated, must be given a legal garb to make them meaningful.

Features of a Federal System of Government

Notable features of a federal state / government (federalism) are:

1. Constitutional Division of Powers

There is a formal division of powers between the constituent units and the central government. The two levels of government, i.e., the unit and the inclusive government, can only exercise powers within the areas allowed them by the constitution.

2. Supremacy of the Constitution

This means that in most federal states, the constitution is supreme and superior to the government. When any level of government or its agency, viz., the legislature, executive, or judiciary, acts contrary to the stipulations of the constitution or exceeds the powers allotted to it by the constitution, those powers, to the extent of their inconsistency, will be declared null and void by the law courts.

3. Existence of a Court to Interpret the Constitutions

The courts exist in most federal states to help clarify and explain the intentions of the constitution. The stipulations of the constitution or the laws of the state are usually couched in legal terms that only those trained to understand and interpret can do, and that is the function of the law courts and legal officers.

The importance of this agency of government to the establishment of a peaceful, harmonious, and stable federal framework cannot be underestimated, hence the need for the independence of the judiciary so that the judges and other officers of the court can discharge their duty without fear of favor.

4. Rigidity of the Constitution

Most federal constitutions are usually rigid; this is necessary so that no person(s), government, or unit of government can change the constitution at will, as the constitution represents the will and spirit of all involved in the union.

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