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  • Federalism and the Euro-Polity
  • Philippe C. Schmitter (bio)

Federalism seems to be creeping insidiously onto the democratization agenda. On the surface, this may seem ironic. Several self-proclaimedly “federalist” polities—the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia—have collapsed in the course of their democratization. Others—Yemen and Nigeria—seem to find federalism a serious impediment to successful regime change. Even some of the world’s best entrenched liberal democracies—Canada and Belgium—have been experiencing considerable difficulty with the federalist structure of their respective states. In short, the felicitous marriage between federalism and democracy that is presumed by virtually all North American theorists may be breaking up in favor of a trend toward more unitary (and more ethnoculturally homogeneous) forms of state authority.

Tocqueville would not have been surprised to see this. Although a lifelong advocate of decentralization, he always regarded federalism as a rara avis, suitable for the “exceptional” conditions of North America, but definitely not for the “normal” conditions that (then) prevailed in Europe. Only because the United States was so isolated from international threats and had such a low intensity of class conflict due to its postfeudal origins and its open frontier could it get away with such a dispersed system of public authority. As for Switzerland, the one country in Europe that came closest to the American model at that time, Tocqueville was categorical and scornful in denying it either democratic or federalist credentials. 1

This brings me to Tocqueville’s generic message—that the same rules do not produce the same results when inserted into different social [End Page 40] structures and mores (moeurs). All political actors may be equally capable of making rational decisions individually and even collectively, but they do so only in different historical contexts, with different memories of the past, dilemmas in the present, and hopes for the future. Nowhere is this stricture more evident that in his treatment of federalism.

What Tocqueville most admired about American federalism was precisely its more statist and centralized aspects—namely, the fact that the central government had its own fiscal basis and capacity to act upon individual citizens directly (by force if necessary) independent of its member-states. He was especially appreciative of the role of the Supreme Court in its capability to declare state laws incompatible with federal ones. And he was not favorably impressed by the fact that the ordinary policing of citizen behavior was so variable from one state to another, considering this as no better than a necessary evil. By contrast, he considered the more “confederal” systems of the early 1800s in Switzerland and Germany so markedly inferior that he doubted whether they could survive.

Despite Tocqueville’s injunction against the facile transfer of institutions from one sociocultural context to another, those external actors who seek to promote the consolidation of new democracies in the contemporary world have tended to push, if not federalism, at least various forms of decentralization and deconcentration of public authority, as if these were universally desirable traits. Backed by powerful international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, they have (implicitly) promised to reward those countries that devolve the most authority to peripheral units and (explicitly) assured them that doing so will bring equity, growth, transparency, accountability, and probity. Admittedly, this enthusiasm is (sometimes) tempered by a reminder that these benefits may take a while in coming and that, in the short to medium term, unbridled “localism” can breed clientelism, corruption, illegality, oligarchy, violation of civil rights, intolerance, discriminatory treatment, duplication of efforts, confusion in administrative procedures, ruinous competition to attract outside investment, and fiscal irresponsibility, while weakening the capacity of central state institutions to cope with the overarching problems of economic adjustment, political security, and personal safety. 2 These advocates seem more preoccupied with the freedom to invest and make a profit than with the freedom to participate and render rulers accountable. Moreover, they seem to think that the means for accomplishing the former is to disperse or even to dismantle as many of the institutions of government as possible. 3

Of course, federalism and decentralization/deconcentration are not the same thing, but they are probably closely related. In...

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pp. 40-47
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