On federalism

By John Roberts

Federalism is a political theory and an ideal. It is concerned with the control and proper use of power. It deals with the reality of power in government and, by strictly defining where, how and by whom such power shall be exercised, it protects the people from the excesses of rulers. Federalism requires an agreed constitution, the division of powers and a democratic temper in the citizens to enable it to function properly. It is not an easy option for governance.

Federal government is set up to do two opposite things – to prevent the state from falling apart and to prevent it being dominated by the centre. Accordingly, it looks both ways – to the centre for cohesion and to the periphery for freedom. It always tends to be in dynamic tension and its politics are stable but not static. Federalism may be seen as the quintessence of democracy, for it always seeks to divide sovereignty and return it to the people unless there are compelling reasons which the people accept for leaving power in the hands of the governors.

Federalism does not downgrade or exalt authority, but sees this as only valid when it is necessary and required for the benefit of the citizens. Federalism is not dependent upon a fixed constitution and it has no perfect example. It fluctuates with the types of state that exists and it develops with the political development of humankind.

This article was written by John Roberts as World Letter 173 in 1980. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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