The simplest democratic structure is a unitary state with a unicameral legislature. This means the country has only a central government. There is no underlying system of states or provinces, and there is only one legislative house. The nation is divided into districts of approximately equal population, the residents of which elect representatives to this single popular assembly.

This type of structure is perfectly suited to govern any society. However, most nations, for a variety of reasons, have states or provinces in addition to the central government. A two-house legislature is also the norm. They further generally have local government as well, for such things as counties, townships and cities.

The reasons behind these complex systems include history, such as the expansion of the United States first colony by colony and then state by state, and also overall size and if there are distinct population subgroups or geographic regions.

A nation is said to have a federal system if it has a central government that unifies its disparate states. The key question for this system is the respective rights and obligations of the central (or federal) government versus the states.

This is also a very fine balance. Too much centralization of power, and there is a risk of dictatorship. Too little, and the nation may split and fail: it could be torn apart by dissenting states. (The center also needs strength to adequately represent the country in international affairs.)

There are wide variations around the world in federal structures, based on differences in this balance of power. The U.S. has a strong center. Other nations, though, are more loosely organized confederations of strong or even autonomous states.

The structure of the society also reflects the degree to which the people identify with the nation versus their state. If there is strong state identity, the federal union tends to be correspondingly weak. But, for any federal structure to function properly, the center must have enough power to counter patterns of discrimination or domination between the different states.

The benefits of a federal structure include that there is strength in such unity, and also that the expenses for certain services, such as a military for defense, can be shared. Weak federations may gain from accepting reduced state power, and a diminution of state identity, to create a strong center and national identity.

There are costs as well, though. The more distinct groups a federal society formally empowers, the more possibilities for conflict there are between such groups. Further, while multiple levels of government provide additional checks and balances, they also enable multiple levels of control, and possibilities for abuse, and lead to greatly increased overall expenses.

Other characteristics of a federal structure include that different states can experiment with alternative approaches to government. They are a means to innovation. However, if there are too many states, the system can become cumbersome.

A related issue in a society that has many states is the development of inconsistencies between them, particularly over the question of individual rights, with some states doing a good job protecting such rights and others being abusive. A primary responsibility of the central government is to ensure that individual rights are consistently protected, nation-wide.

Federal governments usually have exclusive responsibility for the military; foreign affairs; and to issue a currency, including regulating its most important economic consequences. The federal government and the state governments typically share responsibility for, or have the shared right to participate in, other basic services and aspects of government, including drafting legislation; holding elections; raising taxes; forming police forces; regulating commerce; and developing natural resources, including limiting the negative environmental consequences thereof.

A general principle in democracy is that the people most affected by a particular government decision should have the final say over it. This tends to decentralize decision-making, and thus is a natural check on the power of the central government. It also reflects the fact that local officials will be better placed to evaluate local projects. The center only becomes involved to regularize the conditions in the different states, including by ensuring that the nation’s resource wealth is shared, and environmental protections observed.

A common problem is that resource wealth is not shared equitably. Natural resources are extracted from distinct regions, but the people of the regions, due to corruption in the federal government, receive less than their fair share. Such treatment in a number of cases has been a contributing factor in local rebellions, for example, in northeast India and the delta region of Nigeria.

Some nations present severe challenges to the federal structure. If there are deep divisions, between different ethnic, religious or regional groups, no matter the benefits, they may not be suitable for federal government. The structure can be adapted, but in general this demands great compromise. The objective is to provide the states autonomy on local issues, but to have shared responsibility on common concerns. For the latter to be achieved, though, special provisions may be required. If one group constitutes a dominant majority, such that it is able to abuse the rights of others, the society may need disproportionate minority representation (beyond one person one vote), and/or a minority veto.

As political scientist Arend Lijphart has noted, achieving a working federation in sharply divided societies is also easier if there is underlying loyalty to the nation, and if the distinct groups are relatively equal in population and territory.

Ultimately, federal structures are not justifiable for some societies. Separatist desires in response to corruption and discrimination are legitimate. As both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union illustrated, it may be better to end federations that consistently experience difficulties, and instead allow the different states to form independent nations.

The constitution of a nation defines the respective rights of the central government and the states. And just as it describes the procedures by which government officials may be removed, so too should it consider the possibility both of the addition of new states and also the dissolution of the union.

The constitution further defines the relationship between government rights, both federal and state, and individual. In the U.S., the Fourteenth Amendment requires conformity among state law regarding individual rights. (This is an element of the aforementioned equal protection.)

© Roland O. Watson 2008