Federalism is a form of governance as per which multiple governments exercise shared control or power over a region. The constitution of the particular country/state bestows these powers on both governments. In other words, federalism is when a country has a government at the centre and separate sub-governments for its different regions (states or cities), with the national or central government having some form of supervisory control over the regional governments. Generally, the national government takes care of specific aspects of governance and state governments take control in certain regards. The United States of America, India, Brazil, Germany, Canada, etc. are federations.

The governance happens at different branches and levels – there is distribution of power that offers the various entities their identities and sovereignty on local matters, while coming together as one country for national objectives. Unlike a confederation that entails an assortment of independent governments operating on their own or separately, every state or local government in federalism is a sub-governmental unit that’s accountable to the central or national government in some way. In other words, the national government is the chief executive officer (CEO) and state or regional governments the various branch managers.


The national government enacts laws concerning the whole country’s governance. For instance, it can mint money, levy taxes, set up post offices, raise armed forces or declare war, regulate trade between states, establish immigration laws, etc. A national government has limited powers with regard to regulating and/or controlling state-level matters.

In federalism, there are certain things a state government can and cannot do so that it doesn’t overpower the national government. State governments don’t print their own money and cannot charge duties on exports and imports, for instance. A state government cannot impose authority over national government matters. However, it can manage local issues, like those concerning public schools, road repair and maintenance, etc. In addition to national tax rules, state governments can make supplementary tax laws to support themselves.

The level and range of power a national government and state government enjoy depend on the constitution of the land, and since different constitutions across the world have their own guidelines and principles, the scope of governance across different national governments and state governments may vary. Often, there could be conflicts between governments on matters concerning authority and its implementation. In such scenarios, the dispute is settled by the country’s highest judicial institution such as the Supreme Court.  

Federalism Types

Federalism takes different forms; the following are its variations – these strictly apply to American federalism and are unlikely to be found outside the United States. 

  • Dual: Also called “layer cake” federalism, dual federalism acknowledges two layers of governance, with governments in their respective levels having their autonomy and not subjected to intrusions by the other government. However, the central government still has an edge over the state government and can advise on or interfere in specific matters. This is the most common of federalism.
  • Co-operative: Also called “marble cake” federalism, co-operative federalism entails the central and state government sharing power equally.
  • Creative: Also called picket-fence federalism, creative federalism constitutes the national government determining the requirements of a state and providing resources accordingly.
  • New: Contrary to creative federalism, new federalism puts major emphasis on state governments and their funding. This may entail passing welfare program administration to state governments from national government.
  • Permissive: This form of federalism entails state governments enjoying a specific set of authorities and powers approved by the national government.

Apart from the aforementioned types, some American presidents may implement their own styles of federalism, which aren’t technically a federalism form. For instance, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have customized federalism to their likings.

Federalism Positives

The following are reasons why federalism exists in so many developed and developing nations:

  • Accessibility

Federalism ensures the government is closer or accessible to the people, since every state or territory has its own governmental unit. This makes running a large and diverse nation easy. Just one government at the centre cannot possibly be within reach or always responsive to different communities or regions. This also means enhanced democracy or people participation in governance.

  • Power Partition

As aforementioned, federalism limits and partitions power, ensuring a check on governments. A single entity having all the authority and power is dangerous and may lead to tyranny or an oppressive and cruel government. State governments understand their regions’ cultural and economic differences much better than national governments, thereby strengthening the country’s overall unity. A state government that understands its people tends to have citizens loyal to the state.

  • Healthy Competition

Federalism can promote healthy competition between governments, leading to the development and prosperity of the states and the entire country in the process. Also, successful economic, political, and social policies of specific states may get adopted by other states.

Federalism Negatives

Federalism has its share of pitfalls as well.

  • Coming to a consensus on national policies and similar matters becomes difficult and confusing since there are multiple entities and their respective opinions.
  • Since both the national and state government share authority over a particular region, it becomes tricky to lay the blame on a specific entity when something goes wrong, such as a policy fail. The overlapping of power and authority means one government can blame the other for the mishap.
  • Both the national and state government may come to a deadlock or dispute over certain policies or issues. When there’s no agreement, people end up the biggest losers.