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Federalism is the idea of a group or body of members that are bound together (latin: foedus, covenant) with a governing representative head. That representative head can be a king or God (as in theology), or a thing or general assembly (as in politics).

  • In politics, federalism is the political philosophy that underlies a system of government in which power is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent partially self-governing political units (like states or provinces), creating what is often called a federation. The two levels of government are interdependent, and share sovereignty. Proponents are often called federalists. In Canada and Europe, "federalist" is often used to describe those who favor a strong federal government and weaker provincial governments. Curiously, in the United States it describes those who generally favor a weaker federal government and stronger state governments.
  • In theology, federalism is a synonym for basic Covenant Theology. It is a commonly used term in serious theological treatises since the 17th century (yes, prior to the political use) and to this very day, particularly among Reformed thinkers. Federalism describes the relationship between Adam and those born of the flesh (i.e. all generate mankind), and likewise between Christ and those who are in addition born of the Spirit (i.e. all regenerate mankind; see John 3:1-8 and Romans 8:1-17), which is most clearly described in Romans 5:12-21. In theology, the two parties (i.e. the representative head and the represented members) do not share sovereignty.


Political federalism


The writings of two British observers, Albert Dicey and James Bryce, have been influential in the early theory of federalism. Dicey identified two conditions for the formation of a federal state. The first was the existence of a body of countries "so closely connected by locality, by history, by race, or the like, as to be capable to bearing, in the eyes of their inhabitants, an impress of common nationality." The second condition is "the desire for national unity and the determination to maintain the independence of each man's separate State".

The distribution of powers is an essential feature of federalism. In a classic work on the subject, Professor K. C. Where gave this test for federal government: "Does a system of government embody predominantly a division of powers between general and regional authorities, each of which, in its own sphere, is co-ordinate with the others and independent of them?" The result of the distribution of powers is that no one authority can wield the same amount of power as under a unitarian state.

Under a federal system the Constitution is the supreme power from which the state is derived. An independent judiciary is necessary to treat as void every act which is inconsistent with the Constitution. Because of this, federalism is precluded by legalism. The Constitution must necessarily be "rigid" and "inexpansive". Its law must be either legally immutable, or else capable of being changed only by some authority above and beyond the ordinary legislative bodies. The difficulty of altering the constitution tends to produce conservative sentiment.

Federalism and Democracy

The case for federalism is advanced by federalist theory, which argue that federalism provides a robust constitutional system that anchors pluralist democracy, and that it enhances democratic participation through providing dual citizenship in a compound republic.

The classic statement of this position can be found in The Federalist, which argued that federalism helps enshrine the principle of due process, limiting arbitrary action by the state. First, federalism can limit government power to infringe rights, since it creates the possibility that a legislature wishing to restrict liberties will lack the constitutional power, while the level of government that possesses the power lacks the desire. Second, the legalistic decision making processes of federal systems limit the speed with which governments can act.

The argument that federalism helps to secure democracy and human rights has been influenced by the contemporary public choice theory. It has been argued that in smaller political units, individuals can participate more directly than in a monolithic unitary government. Moreover, individuals dissatisfied with conditions in one State have the option of moving to another. Of course, this argument assumes that a freedom of movement between States is necessarily secured by a federal system.

The capacity of a federal system to protect civil liberties has been disputed. Often there is confusion between the rights of individuals with those of states. In Australia, for example, some of the major intergovernmental conflicts in recent decades have been the direct result of federal intervention to secure the rights of minority groups, and required limitations on the powers of state governments. It is also essential to avoid confusion between the constraints set by judicial review, the constitutional power of the courts to overrule Parliament, and federalism itself.

On the one hand, some U.S. states have regrettable histories of denying civil liberties to racial groups, women, and others. On the other hand, the laws and constitutions of some states have protected such minorities with legal rights and protections that exceed those of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Federalism and the U.S. Constitution

Federalism is one of the three pillars of the U.S. Constitution. The others are the separation of powers among the three branches of government--the legislative, executive, and judicial--and civil liberties. The authors of the Federalist Papers explained in essays number 45 and 46 how they expected state governments to exercise checks and balances on the national government to maintain limited government over time.

The U.S. Constitution does not define or explain federalism in any one section, but rather contains numerous mentions of the rights and responsibilities of state governments and state officials vis-à-vis the federal government. The federal government has certain express powers (also called enumerated powers), including the right to declare taxes, declare war, and regulate interstate and foreign commerce. In addition, it has implied power to pass any law "necessary and proper" (found within the elastic clause) for the execution of its express powers. Powers that the Constitution does not give to the federal government or forbid to the states—the reserved powers—are reserved to the people or the states[1].

Dual federalism holds that the federal government and the state governments are co-equals, each sovereign. In this theory, parts of the Constitution are interpreted very narrowly, such as the 10th Amendment, the Supremacy Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Commerce Clause. In this narrow interpretation, the federal government has jurisdiction only if the Constitution clearly grants such. In this case, there is a very large group of powers belonging to the states, and the federal government is limited to only those powers explicitly listed in the Constitution. http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_fedr.html

European federalism

After WWII, several movements were created advocating a European Federation such as the Union of European Federalists or the European Movement, founded in 1948. Those organisations were influential, but never in a decisive way, regarding the European unification process. Europe remains nowadays far from being a federation, although the European Union includes some characteristics of federalism. The European federalists have been campaigning in favour of a directly elected European Parliament and were among the firsts to put a European Constitution on the agenda. Their opponents are both those in favour of a lesser role for the Union and those who wish the Union to be ruled by national governments rather than by an elected European government. Although federalism was mentionned both in drafts of the Maastricht treaty and the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, it was never accepted by the representatives of the Member-States. Governments in favour of a more federal Union are usually the German, Belgium an Italian governments. Those traditionally opposed to this idea are the British and French governments. The attempt to create a European Defense Community was actually the last attempt to create a federal Europe.

Theological federalism

See Covenant Theology for a more extended treatment of the theological federalism described in the introduction above.

Secondarily in theology, federalism also finds expression in ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). For example, presbyterian ecclesiology resembles parliamentary republicanism (a form of political federalism) to a large extent. In Presbyterian denominations, the local church is ruled by elected elders, some of which are ministerial. Each church then sends representatives to presbyteries and further to a general assembly. Each greater level of assembly has ruling authority over its constituent members. In this governmental structure, each component has some level of sovereignty over itself. As in political federalism, in presbyterian ecclesiology there is shared sovereignty.

Other ecclesiologies also have significant representational and federalistic components, including the more democratic congregational ecclesiology, and even in more hierarchical episcopal ecclesiology.

See also

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