Forms of Governance: Unitary & Federal States

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: What is Sovereignty? - Definition & Meaning

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 Locus of Power
  • 0:32 Unitary Systems
  • 1:37 Federal Systems
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed Audio mode

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Just like there are different ways to manage a business, there are different ways to govern a country. In this lesson, you'll learn about the unitary and federal forms of governance, including the key distinctions between them.

Locus of Power

Where power resides in a country is a key question we must answer if we are to understand how a country is governed. Some countries position most government power in a centralized national government, while others split the power between the national government and political subunits such as provinces or states. We call these two systems federal and unitary. Let's take a closer look at these two different approaches to structuring the way a country governs itself.

Unitary Systems

In a country that employs a unitary government, governmental power is concentrated at the national level. A unitary government is sometimes referred to as a centralized government because power is concentrated in one place. The role of local governments is generally limited to implementing and enforcing the laws and policies enacted at the national level. Local governments don't make laws or public policies to any significant degree.

While this structure may seem odd if you are a citizen of the United States, most countries are organized under a unitary system of government. Familiar examples include the United Kingdom, France, Japan, China, Finland, Denmark, and Norway just to name a few. If you're a US citizen, it may help you to understand the unitary form of government by looking at how your state government is set up. Each state in the United States actually employs a unitary form of government; any power that counties, cities, or towns may have is only based upon what the state government permits it to have.

Federal Systems

A federal system of government is decentralized. The United States is the supreme example of a federal system of government. Political power is split between the federal government and the fifty individual states. The governing authority of each of the fifty states is derived from the United States Constitution and each individual state constitution. Importantly, this governing authority is not dependent upon the whim of the national government. While the states may help implement and enforce federal policies and laws like the subunits of a unitary system, they also have the power to enact their own laws and policies.

A federal system poses some problems that aren't typically found in unitary systems. Citizens will be subject to a set of national laws and policies and also subject to a set of laws and policies enacted in the subunit (e.g., state or province) they are in. Moreover, crossing from one subunit into another subunit will subject the citizen to the same federal laws and policies, but a different set of local laws and policies. What may be legal in Texas may be illegal in New York. State government services and benefits in California may be different than those found in Maine.

Problems can also arise if laws at the national level conflict with laws at the local level. In the United States, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution generally results in federal law trumping a state law so long as the federal government had the constitutional authority to enact the law.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support