Exploring Federalism

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The release of this book in 1987 prompted a flurry of excellent and complimentary reviews furthering Elazar’s already considerable reputation as the leading contemporary scholar of federalism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“No contemporary scholar has observed as many federations at first hand or written so prolifically about federalism as Daniel Elazar….Exploring Federalism is the fruit of Elazar’s mature experience and reflection and is a dauntingly comprehensive and erudite book.”
American Political Science Review

“An excellent book…. Elazar diligently explores the roots of federalism, traces its historical development through three stages and then describes how it has and can be employed to promote workable and effective government systems in nations with people of diverse tradition.”
            —The Journal of Politics

“Elazar extends his sights beyond American federalism, about which he is widely achnowledged to be the leading expert, to a masterful discussion of federal government in general…. A remarkable tour de force of scholarship from beginning to end, characterized by Elazar’s lucid writing.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817305758
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1987
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel J. Elazar is director, Center for the Study of Federalism, Temple University.

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Read an Excerpt

Exploring Federalism

By Daniel J. Elazar

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8847-8


Why Federalism?

Human, and hence scholarly, concern with politics focuses on three general themes: the pursuit of political justice to achieve political order; the search for understanding of the empirical reality of political power and its exercise; and the creation of an appropriate civic environment through civil society and civil community capable of integrating the first two themes to produce the good political life. Political science as a discipline was founded and has developed in pursuit of those three concerns. In that pursuit, political scientists have uncovered or identified certain architectonic principles, seminal ideas, and plain political truths that capture the reality of political life or some significant segment of it and relate that reality to larger principles of justice and political order and to practical yet normative civic purposes.

One of the major recurring principles of political import which informs and encompasses all three themes is federalism—an idea that defines political justice, shapes political behavior, and directs humans toward an appropriately civic synthesis of the two. Through its covenantal foundations, federalism is an idea whose importance is akin to natural law in defining justice and to natural right in delineating the origins and proper constitution of political society. Although those foundations have been somewhat eclipsed since the shift to organic and then positivistic theories of politics, which began in the mid-nineteenth century, federalism as a form of political organization has grown as a factor shaping political behavior. Now, in the crisis of transition from the modern to the postmodern epochs, the federal idea is resurfacing as a significant political force just as it did in the transition from the late medieval to the modern epoch, which took place from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Federalism is resurfacing as a political force because it serves well the principle that there are no simple majorities or minorities but that all majorities are compounded of congeries of groups, and the corollary principle of minority rights, which not only protects the possibility for minorities to preserve themselves but forces majorities to be compound rather than artificially simple. It serves those principles by emphasizing the consensual basis of the polity and the importance of liberty in the constitution and maintenance of democratic republics. Both principles are especially important in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, where people and peoples must live together whether they like it or not and even aspire to do so democratically. Hence it is not surprising that peoples and states throughout the world are looking for federal solutions to the problems of political integration within a democratic framework.

Federalism and the Origins of the Polity

Since its beginnings, political science has identified three basic ways in which polities come into existence: conquest (force, in the words of Federalist No. 1), organic development (for the Federalist, accident), and covenant (choice). These questions of origins are not abstract; the mode of founding of a polity does much to determine the framework for its subsequent political life.

Conquest can be understood to include not only its most direct manifestation—a conqueror gaining control of a land or a people—but also such subsidiary ways as a revolutionary conquest of an existing state, a coup d'etat, or even an entrepreneur conquering a market and organizing his control through corporate means. Conquest tends to produce hierarchically organized regimes ruled in an authoritarian manner: power pyramids with the conqueror on top, his agents in the middle, and the people underneath the governing structure. The original expression of this form of polity was the Pharaonic state of ancient Egypt. It was hardly an accident that those rulers who brought the Pharaonic state to its fullest development had the pyramids built as their tombs. Although the Pharaonic model has been judged illegitimate in Western society, modern totalitarian theories, particularly fascism and nazism, have attempted to give it a certain theoretical legitimacy.

Organic evolution involves the development of political life from its beginnings in families, tribes, and villages to larger polities in such a way that institutions, constitutional relationships, and power alignments emerge in response to the interaction between past precedent and changing circumstances, with a minimum of deliberate constitutional choice. The end result tends to be a polity with a single center of power organized in one of several ways. Classic Greek political thought emphasized the organic evolution of the polity and rejected any other means of polity-building as deficient or improper. The organic model is closely related to the concept of natural law in the political order.

The organic model has proved most attractive to political philosophers precisely because at its best it seems to reflect the natural order of things. Thus it has received the most intellectual and academic attention. Just as conquest tends to produce hierarchically organized regimes ruled in an authoritarian manner, however, organic evolution tends to produce oligarchic regimes, which at their best have an aristocratic flavor and at their worst are simply the rule of the many by the few. In the first, the goal is to control the top of the pyramid; in the second, the goal is to control the center of power.

Covenantal foundings emphasize the deliberate coming together of humans as equals to establish bodies politic in such a way that all reaffirm their fundamental equality and retain their basic rights. Even the Hobbesian covenant—and he specifically uses that term—which establishes a polity in which power is vested in a single sovereign maintains this fundamental equality although, in practice, it could not coexist with the system of rule that Hobbes requires. Polities whose origins are covenantal reflect the exercise of constitutional choice and broad-based participation in constitutional design. Polities founded by covenant are essentially federal in character, in the original meaning of the term, whether or not they are federal in structure. That is, each polity is a matrix compounded of equal confederates who come together freely and retain their respective integrities even as they are bound in a common whole. Such polities are republican by definition, and power within them must be diffused among many centers or the various cells within the matrix.

Recurring expressions of the covenant or federal model are found in ancient Israel, whose people started out as rebels against the Pharaonic model; among the medieval rebels against the Holy Roman Empire; in the Reformation era among rebels against the Catholic hierarchy; among the early modern republicans who rebelled against either hierarchical or oligarchic regimes; and in authentic modern federal systems. Frontiersmen generally—people who have gone out to settle new areas where there were no established patterns of governance in which to fit and who, therefore, have had to compact with one another to create governing institutions—are to be found among the most active covenanters and builders of federal institutions beyond that original covenant.

The Federal Idea

As many philosophers, theologians, and political theorists in the Western world have noted, the federal idea has its roots in the Bible. Indeed, the first usage of the term was for theological purposes, to define the partnership between man and God described in the Bible, which, in turn, gave form to the idea of a covenantal (or federal) relationship between individuals and families leading to the formation of a body politic and between bodies politic leading to the creation of compound polities. The political applications of the theological usage gave rise to the transformation of the term "federal" into an explicitly political concept.

The term "federal" is derived from the Latin foedus, which, like the Hebrew term brit, means covenant. In essence, a federal arrangement is one of partnership, established and regulated by a covenant, whose internal relationships reflect the special kind of sharing that must prevail among the partners, based on a mutual recognition of the integrity of each partner and the attempt to foster a special unity among them. Significantly, shalom, the Hebrew term for peace, is a cognate of brit, having to do with the creation of the covenantal wholeness that is true peace.

Federal principles are concerned with the combination of self-rule and shared rule. In the broadest sense, federalism involves the linking of individuals, groups, and polities in lasting but limited union in such a way as to provide for the energetic pursuit of common ends while maintaining the respective integrities of all parties. As a political principle, federalism has to do with the constitutional diffusion of power so that the constituting elements in a federal arrangement share in the processes of common policy making and administration by right, while the activities of the common government are conducted in such a way as to maintain their respective integrities. Federal systems do this by constitutionally distributing power among general and constituent governing bodies in a manner designed to protect the existence and authority of all. In a federal system, basic policies are made and implemented through negotiation in some form so that all can share in the system's decision-making and executing processes.

The Federalist Revolution

The federalist revolution is among the most widespread—if one of the most unnoticed—of the various revolutions that are changing the face of the globe in our time. In the modern and postmodern epochs federalism has emerged as a major means of accommodating the spreading desire of people to preserve or revive the advantages of small societies with the growing necessity for larger combinations to employ common resources or to maintain or strengthen their cultural distinctiveness within more extensive polities. Consequently, federal arrangements have been widely applied, on one hand, to integrate new polities while preserving legitimate internal diversities and, on the other, to link established polities for economic advantage and greater security. Nearly 40 percent of the world's population now lives within polities that are formally federal; another third live in polities that apply federal arrangements in some way.

The term "federal arrangements" suggest that there is more than one way to apply federal principles. Indeed, to use a biological analogy, federalism can be considered a genus of political organization of which there are several species. Europe knew of only one federal arrangement, confederation, whereby several preexisting polities joined together to form a common government for strictly limited purposes, usually foreign affairs and defense, which remained dependent upon its constituent polities. Two centuries ago, the United States invented modern federalism and added federation as a second form, one that was widely emulated in the nineteenth century. A federation is a polity compounded of strong constituent entities and a strong general government, each possessing powers delegated to it by the people and empowered to deal directly with the citizenry in the exercise of those powers.

In the twentieth century, especially since World War II, new federal arrangements have been developed, or federal elements have been recognized in older ones previously not well understood. Federacies, associated state arrangements, and common markets are postmodern applications of the federal principle. In a federacy arrangement, a larger power and a smaller polity are linked asymmetrically in a federal relationship whereby the latter has greater autonomy than other segments of the former and, in return, has a smaller role in the governance of the larger power. The relationship between them is more like that of a federation than a confederation and can be dissolved only by mutual agreement. Associated state arrangements are equally asymmetrical but are like confederations in that they can be dissolved unilaterally by either of the parties. Consequently, the associated states have even less of a role in the governance of the associated power. Common markets are forms of confederation emphasizing shared economic rather than political functions.

Political scientists have rediscovered the federal characteristics present in consociational polities, unions, and leagues. Consociational polities are nonterritorial federations in which polities divided into transgenerational religious, cultural, ethnic, or ideological groupings are constituted as federations of "camps," "sectors," or "pillars" and jointly governed by coalitions of the leaders of each. Unions are polities compounded in such a way that their constituent entities preserve their respective integrities primarily or exclusively through the common organs of the general government rather than through dual government structures. Leagues, on the other hand, are linkages of politically independent polities for specific purposes, which function through a common secretariat rather than a government and from which members may unilaterally withdraw. Although neither is a species of federalism, properly speaking, both use federal principles in their constitution and governance. New regional arrangements, which are essentially leagues that emphasize regional development, represent more limited applications of federal mechanisms. There is every reason to expect that in the postmodern world new applications of the federal principle will be developed in addition to the arrangements we already know, including functional authorities for the joint implementation of particular tasks and condominiums involving joint rule by two powers over a shared territory in such a way that the inhabitants of the latter have substantial self-rule. Thus reality is coming to reflect the various faces of federalism.

A major reason for this evolution lies in the reassertion of ethnic and regional identities, now worldwide in scope, which promises to be one of the major political issues of this generation and the next century. There are some 3,000 ethnic or tribal groups in the world conscious of their respective identities. Of the more than 160 politically "sovereign" states now in existence, more than 140 are multiethnic in composition. More than one-third of those states, 58 to be exact, are involved in formal arrangements using federal principles in some way to accommodate demands for self-rule or shared rule within their boundaries or in partnership with other polities. In sum, although the ideology of the nation-state—a single state embracing a single nation—remains strong, the nation-state itself is rare.

The federalist revolution in Western Europe is taking on two forms. On one hand, Western Europe is moving toward a new-style confederation of old states through the European Community and, on the other, there is a revival of even older ethnic and regional identities in the political arena. As a result, Belgium, Italy, and Spain have constitutionally regionalized themselves or are in the process of doing so, and even France is being forced to move in that direction, at least in the case of Corsica. Portugal has devolved power to its island provinces—as the Netherlands and Denmark have long since done. Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, already federal systems, are undergoing an intensification of their federalist dimensions in one way or another. The issue remains alive, if unresolved, in Britain. The idea of a Europe of ethnic regions is a potent force on that continent.

Most of the new states of Asia and Africa must come to grips with the multiethnic issue. It is an issue that can be accommodated peacefully only through the application of federal principles that will combine kinship (the basis of ethnicity) and consent (the basis of democratic government) into politically viable, constitutionally protected arrangements involving territorial and nonterritorial polities. Although only a few of those states have formally federal systems, as in India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, a number of others have adopted other federal arrangements internally and are combining in multinational arrangements on a regional basis.

Western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region, known collectively as the Middle East, are no exceptions to this problem of ethnic diversity. Indeed, many of that region's current problems can be traced to the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, which had succeeded in accommodating communal diversity within a universal state for several centuries. The intercommunal wars in Cyprus, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan, not to speak of the minority problems in Egypt, Iran, and Syria and the Israel-Arab conflict, offer headline testimony to this reality. Federal solutions are no less relevant in the Middle East than elsewhere, but especially in the Middle East is the need great for a postmodern federalism that is not simply based upon territorial boundaries but recognizes the existence of long-enduring peoples as well.


Excerpted from Exploring Federalism by Daniel J. Elazar. Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Why Federalism?,
2. What Is Federalism?,
3. Federalism as Means and End,
4. Federal Ideas and Forms,
5. The Elements of Federalism,
6. Centralizing and Decentralizing Trends in Contemporary Federal Systems,
7. Will the Postmodern Epoch Be an Era of Federalism?,
Selected Bibliography,

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