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3.9: Federal, Confederate, and Unitary Government

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  • Figure 3.9.1: Political scientists have identified three types of governments.

    When governments are formed over large geographic areas or nations, it often becomes necessary to create smaller regional governments (states) as well. Political scientists have identified three basic types of national governments by evaluating the amount of power and authority given to the central (national) governments and to the regional governments (states/provinces). These can be classified in the form of unitary governments, federations, and confederations. Each of these types of governments can be found operating in the world today, and each is a potentially successful means of structuring a state. They are separated by the role of the central government.

    Unitary Government

    In a unitary system of government, the central government holds most of the power. The unitary state still has local and regional governmental offices, but these are under the direct control or authority of the central government. The United Kingdom is one example of a unitary nation. Parliament holds the governing power in the U.K., granting power to and removing it from the local governments when it sees fit. France is also a unitary government. The national government rules over the various provinces or departments. These local bodies carry out the directions of the central government, but never act independently.

    Federalism is marked by a sharing of power between the central government and state, provincial, or local governing bodies. The United States is one example of a federal republic. The U.S. Constitution grants specific powers to the national government while retaining other powers for the states. For example, the federal government can negotiate treaties with other countries while state and local authorities cannot. State governments have the power to set and enforce driving laws while the federal government lacks that ability. The United States, Canada, and Germany are just some examples of modern federalist systems.

    A confederation has a weak central authority that derives all its powers from the state or provincial governments. The states of a confederation retain all the powers of an independent nation, such as the right to maintain a military force, print money, and make treaties with other national powers. The United States began its nationhood as a confederate state, under the Articles of Confederation. However, the central government was too weak to sustain the burgeoning country. Therefore, the founding fathers shifted to a federal system when drafting the Constitution. A contemporary example of a confederation is the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is comprised of several nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. These nations formed a loose partnership to enable them to form a stronger national body than each individual state could maintain.

    Comparing Types of Government

    One has only to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each system to see the greatest differences among them. In a unitary system, laws and policies throughout the state are commonly shared, laws are more easily passed since they need only be approved by the central government, and laws are rarely contradictory since there is only one body making those laws. There are disadvantages of this type of government. The central government may lose touch with or control over a distant province or too much power in the central authority could result in tyranny (governmental abuse of its authority). In a federal system, a degree of autonomy is given to the individual states while maintaining a strong central authority and the possibility of tyranny is very low. Federal systems still have their share of power struggles, such as those seen in the American Civil War. Confederate governments are focused on states rights and the needs of the people in each state. The government tends to be more in touch with its citizenry, and tyranny is much less commonly seen. Unfortunately, confederations often break apart due to internal power struggles and lack the resources of a strong centralized government.



    Level of Centralization



    Unitary (e.g., China, France, Japan, United Kingdom)


    Sets uniform policies that direct the entire nation

    Disregards local differences

    Federal (e.g., United States, Germany, Australia, Canada


    Gives local governments more power

    Sacrifices national uniformity on some issues

    Confederate (e.g., Confederate States of America, Belgium)


    Gives local/regional governments almost complete control

    Sets no significant uniform national policies

    national and state govt. relationships compared
    Figure 3.9.2: Diagram of National and State Governmental Relationships
    Figure 3.9.3

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. Describe the characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages of each of the following forms of government.








    2. What are the two basic forms of democratic republic described in the text? How are they similar? How are they different?





    Case Study

    The United Nations is an international organization founded after World War II in 1945 by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights.

    Due to its unique international character and the powers vested in its founding Charter, the organization can take action on a wide range of issues, and provide a forum for its 193 member states to express their views through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and other bodies and committees

    3. How would you describe the power distribution of this organization (unitary, federal, or confederation)? Explain your answer.

    "Democratic presidential republic."   Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "Introduction to Sociology/Politics."   Wikibooks  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "theocracy." Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0
    "oligarchy."   Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    Source: Boundless. "The U.S. Political System." Boundless Sociology. Boundless 02 Jul 2014. Retrieved 23 Dec 2014 from
    Source: Boundless. "Types of States." Boundless Sociology. Boundless. 14 Nov 2014. Retrieved 23 Dec. 2014 from