's Comparative Politics/Confederations vs. Federations

Unitary, Federal, and Confederate states


There are in general three types of states: unitary, federal, and confederate states.



A unitary state is where only one government has sovereign power. That central government can create other bodies to exercise its power, but the central government can also eliminate them. The typical example of a unitary state is France, which has a central government located in Paris.



A federal state is where sovereignty is shared between relatively sovereign state governments, and an "umbrella" government of very limited, clearly defined power. Neither state nor federal governments have the power to interfere with the other's powers. The United States of America had been an excellent example of a federal state, with a federal government located in Washington, D.C. - which was a non-state, neutral and federal territory. Some consider "The War Between the States," which eliminated the right of secession, the end of the federal era. But elements of federal government lingered until at least 1913, when the states' voice in federal government, a state-appointed senate, was lost under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.



The United States is exactly that--a Union of states. Each state has its own individual powers. However, that does not mean that the states have power to legislate on all matters. The Constitution of the United States spells out the powers of the federal government and of the "several states." The Union government (known as the federal government) has its own fields of legislation, and if federal legislation conflicts with the state laws, the federal legislation prevails. If this occurs, the state must defer to the federal government. The alternative, that any state may at any time leave the Union and thus be free from Union interference in the state's internal affairs, was tried during the American Civil War.

Types of Federalism


There are two types of federal systems. The first, dual federalism, holds that the Union and the state are equal; under this view of federalism, the Union government only has the powers expressly granted to it, while the states retain all other powers. The second view, cooperative federalism, states that the federal government is definitively superior to the state government, and the federal government should stretch its powers as far as possible. The US is a Union that does not completely fit either definition. The type of federalism in effect really depends on who is in power at the time. In any case, the Constitution prevents stretching federalism too far in either extreme.

Types of Power


All powers retained by the states are known as reserved powers. Those specifically granted only to the Union government are known as enumerated powers. Finally, matters over which both the Union and the state governments have control are known as concurrent powers.

The Tenth Amendment provides that the Union government has only the powers expressly designated to it by the Constitution, and the states control all other matters.

Enumerated Powers


Enumerated powers relate to the following:

  • Regulation of interstate and foreign commerce
  • Immigration and Citizenship
  • Bankruptcy
  • Weights and Measures
  • Currency
  • Copyrights and Patents (Special rights granted to authors and inventors relating to the writing or discovery)
  • Crimes at sea
  • Military
  • Declaration of War
  • Control of the District of Columbia
  • Federal Courts
  • "Necessary and Proper"- The necessary and proper clause allows the Union government to make laws necessary to utilize other powers. For instance, this clause allows the government to jail persons who violate laws created under the aforestated powers.

Reserved Powers


As has been mentioned, the states have control over all matters not controlled by the Union government. Some of these matters include:

  • Education
  • Police protection
  • Licensing
  • Control local governments
  • Regulate individual and corporate activities in order to protect and enhance public health, welfare, safety, morals, and convenience.

Concurrent Powers


Several powers belong concurrently to the Union and the state governments. These include:

  • Transportation
  • Taxation
  • Make and enforce laws
  • Establish courts
  • Borrow
  • Spend money for general welfare
  • Take private property for public purposes, with just compensation.
  • Charter banks and corporations



A confederate state is where sovereignty is given mostly to the regional governments, with minimal power given to the central government. Two good examples of this form of government include the original United States government under the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Confederate States of America, which believed in states' rights. In current times the best example of confederal government is the European Union.