Forms of Governance: Unitary & Federal States

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  • 0:04 Locus of Power
  • 0:32 Unitary Systems
  • 1:37 Federal Systems
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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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.

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