A system of government distributes power among different parts and levels of the state. Political scientists study the uses of power, including how power is distributed within a state. The amount of power held by the central government determines the system of government a state has. There are three main systems of government used today: unitary systems, federal systems, and confederate systems.



Level of Centralization



Unitary (e.g., China, France, Japan, United Kingdom)HighSets uniform policies that direct the entire nationDisregards local differences
Federal (e.g., United States, Germany, Australia, Canada)MediumGives local governments more powerSacrifices national uniformity on some issues
Confederate (e.g., Confederate States of America, Belgium)LowGives local/regional governments almost complete controlSets no significant uniform national policies

Unitary Systems

A unitary system has the highest degree of centralization. In a unitary state, the central government holds all the power. Lower-level governments, if they exist at all, do nothing but implement the policies of the national government. In a purely unitary state, the same set of laws applies throughout the nation, without variation. Unitary states create national policy, which is then applied uniformly. This uniformity sometimes serves as an advantage because people and businesses know exactly what to expect from the laws, regardless of geographical location. At the same time, to maintain its uniformity, a unitary government must overlook local differences that might call for different rules or policies.

Example: Most absolute monarchies and tyrannies operate under unitary systems. But democratic unitary states exist as well. In France, for example, the central government makes virtually all of the decisions.

Federal Systems

A federal system has a mix of national and state or local gov- ernments. The federal government usually trumps local governments in matters of defense and foreign policy, but local governments have a great deal of say over most other policy areas. Sometimes local governments administer national policies, which means that, in practice, the “national” policy varies a great deal from place to place.

Example: In the United States, state governments administered Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) throughout the length of the program, 1935–1997. Although the federal government set certain rules for how the money was to be spent, state governments had the power to administer it as they saw fit. Some states, therefore, gave little money through AFDC, whereas others were much more generous.

Often, the boundary between national and local power is blurred. Federal systems have the opposite strengths and weaknesses of unitary systems: They excel at factoring in local circumstances but often fail to have a coherent national policy.

Example: The United States, Mexico, and Canada operate under federal systems. These states have a mix of national and state governments that share power and policymaking responsibilities.

Confederate Systems

A confederate system sits at the other extreme in terms of centralization. A confederacy is a loose relationship among a number of smaller political units. The vast majority of political power rests with the local governments; the central federal government has very little power. Local governments have a great deal of freedom to act as they wish, but this freedom often leads to conflicts between states and the federal government. In some cases, a confederacy is little more than an alliance between independent states.

Example: For Americans, the Confederate States of America—which governed the South during the Civil War—is the best-known example of a confederacy, but there have been others. In fact, the first government of the United States, created by the Articles of Confederation (finished in 1777), was this type of system. Today, Belgium is basically a confederacy between two largely independent states, Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south.

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