After living abroad in a small, politically centralized country, I came back to the United States and suddenly realized how strange federalism feels to me. Individual states have so much political power that the US feels a bit like 50 separate countries.

Where does the US sit in the global spectrum running from centralized to decentralized political power? Obviously it's more on the decentralized side, but is it at the extreme of the decentralized side? Are there any countries more federated than the US (of course I mean constitutionally -- not just because of a failure of the central government. Also I mean "horizontally" diffuse, not in the sense of checks-and-balances among different bodies within the central government)?

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    This is difficult question because decentralization does not have specific criteria. For example both the US and Russia are federations, yet one is a representative democracy, the other an autocracy. In theory I would assume the Switzerland Confederation to be the most decentralized of the developed economies (cantons can chose their own language for example and citizens can literally challenge law by direct democracy) but it's a much more homogeneous country. which brings us to the problem of scale. The US is really big. You can't easily compare it to countries the size of its states.
    – armatita
    Nov 12, 2018 at 9:51
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    @armatita I strongly suspect that political scientists/statisticians have come up with some arbitrary/artificial measure to place systems on a scale from centralised to federal to confederal. And I'm not convinced Switzerland is more homogeneous, there are very large cultural differences between Geneva and Appenzell as there are between NYC and rural Kansas.
    – gerrit
    Nov 12, 2018 at 11:22
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    @gerrit It is assumption not a certainty as mentioned. An yes there are, in fact, studies comparing different systems (or countries). Check, for example, this one. The issue here is the criteria. As for homogeneity I'm not saying the extremes don't exist (as Appenzell clearly show us) but I really doubt they have the dimension they have in the US. I would assume rights and values are fairly similar geographically in one country but not in the other.
    – armatita
    Nov 12, 2018 at 11:58
  • What's the metric to measure "strong centralization" vs "strong atomization"? How do you measure them? I think the US is highly centralized now because of polarization. This link explain it. Nov 13, 2018 at 12:30

1 Answer 1


I would argue that if you count the EU as a single country, it would be more decentralized than the United States. The EU would be a good example of a "working" confederacy (as a general, Confederacy member states are allowed the right to leave, where as Federation states are usually stuck). Additionally, members of the EU are allowed to engage in foreign relations with various nations of the world, where as if Texas starts having diplomatic talks with Russia, Texas Government has some serious issues.

In addition, the United Kingdom Commonwealth nations could be a looser form of devolution as all Commonwealth nations are independent countries that all have the same head of State (The Queen of England) though that would be a rather poor example of any kind of federalism as most of those countries did peaceably what the U.S. did in the Revolutionary War.

Federalism is generally seen as a good thing for large nations where the member state gives up some powers to a central government, but is allowed to keep other things. Yes, the U.S. is essentially 50 separate countries that collectively are negotiating with foreign powers as one voice, but don't want that same authority micromanaging. Nations with large areas such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, Russia (Both the USSR and the Modern Russian Federation), Brazil, Mexico, and India all use federalism to manage smaller regions that might have different needs when compared to one nation as a whole (Nebraska doesn't need a Navy and Alaska doesn't need a tax on Corn growth, to name some examples.). Most Federations leave International issues and issues between member states to the Federal Government and any issue that doesn't meet that threshold is restricted from the Federal Government (the entire point of the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution is basically to stop the Federal Government from taking control of powers not discussed in the Constitution... those are powers of the state).

Perhaps Switzerland's federal government has even less power than the United States as the Cantons (State level regions) are able to set their own immigration policies and Swiss Direct Democracy extends to the Federal Level, where as the United States has no Federal Level Direct Democracy (though all 50 states have some level of direct democracy).

Edit: Oh, Federalism also does not require a Republic form of government. Malaysia is a Federal Monarchy and technically, so are the UK Commonwealths (they have a Queen as their head of State). Japan's Prefectures were based off of the Pre-Meiji Feudal divisions during the Shogunate.