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  Federalism (from Latin foedus, ‘covenant’) is a political arrangement where several states choose to join together for mutual advantage, while retaining an amount of autonomy: the analogy is less with a body or a pack of animals than with stockholders in a company. Often such federations are successful: the United States and the German federation are prime examples. But often they fail: notable examples are the United States of South America, which Simón Bolívar attempted and failed to establish in the early 19th century, and the former USSR which so spectacularly unravelled after the Cold War. In each of the last two cases, the attempt was to federate not states but whole countries, with long-established ethnic and political identities of their own.

In a federation sovereignty is shared between the central or federal government and the sub-federal governments (known as cantons, Länder, provinces, republics or states). Each of these two levels of government is sovereign in its own domain, and the relations between the two levels are normally regulated by constitutional law which specifies the appropriate competencies (separate or joint) of the federal and sub-federal units. Federations are usually accompanied by a written constitution. Democratic federations also normally provide for bicameral representation at the federal level: a popular chamber, or house of representatives, and a provincial chamber or senate in which either each of the sub-units of the federation are equally represented or the less populous sub-units are over-represented. Constitutional change in a federation is distinguished by the fact that the sub-federal units have the right to participate in amending (or vetoing change of) the federal constitution, and to change their own constitutions. Disagreements remain legion among political scientists and constitutional lawyers about the precise necessary and sufficient conditions to define a federation. At one extreme are those who see any system of decentralization as displaying federal characteristics, at the other are those who require numerous highly specific institutional arrangements to be present.

Federalism has developed in various parts of the world (for example, as well as Germany and the US, in Australia, Belgium, Canada, India and Switzerland), and has been vigorously espoused elsewhere for various reasons. The latter have included the desire to promote a single market and/or strong defence and foreign affairs capability out of an existing confederation; the wish to integrate diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious, racial or regional communities without imposing uniform centralization; and the ambition to disperse and balance sovereign power in what used to be a unitary state.

Critics of federalism condemn it for being too weak, and not sufficiently responsive to the will of the majority (the argument made by exponents of a unitary state); or, conversely, federalism is criticized for being too centralist (the argument made by confederal opponents of greater European integration). Others observe, with either approval or disapproval, that federal systems are almost always engaged in constitutional renegotiations of competencies, and complex bargaining over redistributive issues.

Federalist ideas have long antecedents in Western political thought, especially in the dispersed patterns of authority characteristic of European feudalism, but the first detailed defence of a modern federal system of government was published in 1787 in the USA by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Their opponents, the anti-federalists, were mostly confederalists. Similar arguments now surround the creation of a deeper ‘European Union’. BO\'L

Further reading A. Hamilton, , J. Madison and , J. Jay (ed. , I. Kramnick), The Federalist Papers; , K.C. Wheare, Federal Government.



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