Unitary governments, federations, and confederations are types of governments that can be found operating in the world today. Each is a potentially successful means of structuring a state. What separates them is the role of the central government within the state.

Unitary System

France also has a unitary government, headquartered in the National Assembly.
France also has a unitary government, headquartered in the National Assembly.

In a unitary system of government, the central government holds most of the power. The unitary state still has local and regional governmental offices, but these are under the auspices of the central government. The United Kingdom is one example of a unitary nation. Parliament holds the governing power in the U.K., granting power to and removing it from the local governments when it sees fit. France is also a unitary government. The national government rules over the various provinces or departments. These local bodies carry out the directions of the central government, but never act independently.

Federalist System

The Bundestag is the federal governing body in Germany. It meets in the Reichstag building.
The Bundestag is the federal governing body in Germany. It meets in the Reichstag building.

Federalism is marked by a sharing of power between the central government and state, provincial or local governing bodies. The United States is one example of a federalist republic. The U. S. Constitution grants specific powers to the national government while retaining other powers for the states. For example, the federal government can negotiate treaties with other countries while state and local authorities cannot. State governments have the power to set and enforce driving laws while the federal government lacks that ability. Modern Germany is also a federalist republic. The national government shares power with provincial political entities, known as “Länder.”

Confederations

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. drafted the Articles of Confederation, a precursor to the current Constitution.
The Founding Fathers of the U.S. drafted the Articles of Confederation, a precursor to the current Constitution.

A confederation has a weak central authority that derives all its powers from the state or provincial governments. The states of a confederation retain all the powers of an independent nation, such as the right to maintain a military force, print money, and make treaties with other national powers. The United States began its nationhood as a confederate state, under the Articles of Confederation. However, the central government was too weak to sustain the burgeoning country. Therefore, the founding fathers shifted to a federal system when drafting the Constitution. A contemporary example of a confederation is the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is comprised of several nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. These nations formed a loose partnership to enable them to form a stronger national body than each individual state could maintain.

Advantages and Disadvantages

One has only to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each system to see the greatest differences among them. In a unitary system, laws and policies throughout the state are uniform, laws are more easily passed since they need only be approved by the central government, and laws are rarely contradictory since there is only one body making those laws. There are disadvantages of this type of government. The central government may lose touch with or control over a distant province or too much power in the central authority could result in tyranny. In a federal system, a degree of autonomy is given to the individual states while maintaining a strong central authority and the possibility of tyranny is very low. Federal systems still have their share of power struggles, such as those seen in the American Civil War. Confederate governments are focused on the needs of the people in each state, the government tends to be more in touch with its citizenry, and tyranny is almost impossible. Unfortunately, confederations often break apart due to internal power struggles and lack the resources of a strong centralized government.