Constitutional Origins, Structure, and Change in Federal Countries edited by John Kincaid, G. Alan Tarr
McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 2005
Pages: 448. $29.95
||Beryl A. Radin
||Public Administration Review
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 67, Issue 03, Pages 590-592
Book Reviews: Federalism in a Global Context
This substantial volume is the first in a series of books on comparative federalism jointly sponsored by the Canadian-based Forum of Federations and the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies. Later volumes will focus on the distribution of powers and responsibilities in federal countries and legislative, executive, and judicial governance. As John Kincaid and G. Alan Tarr write in the introduction to the volume, "In a world that today is undergoing political, cultural, economic, and social change at an unprecedented rate, federal systems are experiencing continuous transformation .... The experiences of other federations allow us to foresee more clearly the likely consequences of various arrangements. Learning comes not only from the successes but also from the difficulties of other federations" (4).
The book contains case studies of 12 federal countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States. Each case study follows a similar organizational approach that focuses on the constitutional origins, structure, and development of the country. An introductory essay and a concluding chapter (written by the two editors) serve as bookends for the cases.
Students of comparative federalism will find this volume an important resource and basic reference work, and the book is certainly appropriate at this juncture as we think about federalism in settings around the world. One need only pick up a daily newspaper to see how federalist concepts are at the top of the agenda in Iraq and other locations. And there are still issues related to federalism that are difficult to grasp in the U.S. context.
As the book makes clear, there is no single model of federalism that is appropriate in settings with very different histories, political structures, economic conditions, patterns of change, and diverse populations. In recent years, federalism has become increasingly relevant to developing countries as they seek to find ways to deal with the diverse populations within their borders. Yet it is clear that this constituency looks at issues quite differently from those of developed countries in the West, and traditional ways of looking at federalism are not always appropriate to those conversations.
Because this volume focuses on the constitutional lens to describe the 12 countries, the differences between developed and developing countries are not fully explored or accentuated. One would like to know how well the constitution is actually working in the countries studied. It is important to know something about the legal structure of the systems, but the approach taken in the volume does not reach toward an analysis of the enforcement of constitutional requirements or what actually occurs within a federal system. Similarly, there is some attempt within the cases to link attributes of federalism to democracy, but I wished for more discussion of this topic.
Despite these concerns, the book stimulates the reader to think about a range of issues that are not always discussed in a classic federalism conversation. Six issues are relevant to a public administration audience. Some of these issues are discussed in the volume, but others emerge from moving beyond the constitutional structure lens. They are the role of the bureaucracy, the focus on policy issues, colonialism and neocolonialism, change and political shifts, the role of ideology, and intergovernmental management.
The role of bureaucracy. I find it interesting that the case studies totally avoid discussion of the role of bureaucracy in federal systems. It is particularly strange to me that the chapter on India does not include any discussion of the Indian Administrative Service-a system that is actually mentioned in the Indian constitution and conceived as a mechanism for linking centralized concerns to the realities of very different states. The bureaucracy is one of a number of institutions and processes that have been devised to deal with conflict between centralized and decentralized approaches, and I think it is important to include in an analysis of federalism.
The focus on policy issues. As we have learned in the United States, federalism strategies and approaches vary depending on the specific program or policy that is under consideration. Yet most federalism scholars tend to focus on the formal legal structures (such as constitutions) that lead people to believe there are clear patterns within a political system. Some countries, such as India, have established concurrent powers between centralized and decentralized units within their constitution. This leads to a highly variegated system. A recent book titled Federalism and the Welfare State (Obinger, Liebfried, and Castles 2005) analyzes six federal systems to see how they define the "welfare state." Their findings challenge the idea that federalism always inhibits social policy development and show how difficult it is to establish a clear definition of federalism and how systems deal with constant change. This is an approach that is very promising for future analyses.
Colonialism and neocolonialism. As the book makes clear, many of the countries that now have federal systems devised them as a way to move out of colonial relationships. Colonial systems tended to be highly centralized and gave little attention to the needs and realities of different populations within a country. Some of the difficult issues that are a part of the current political landscape are directly attributable to the decisions made by colonial powers. Although these developments are part of the past and not the current situation, they have been replaced by other forces that I crudely term "neocolonialism." A number of countries-particularly those with such valuable resources as oil-have to deal with decisions made by multinational companies. For example, federalism in Nigeria is entwined with international petroleum decisions. Other countries also have to deal with the involvement of organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in developing domestic policies. In India, for example, the relationships between the states and the central government are affected by the policies of these multinational organizations.
Change and political shifts. A range of developments, such as crises, wars, political shifts, demographic swings, and economic fluctuations, have a direct impact on the relationships between centralized and decentralized institutions. In some cases, this has led to more centralized power. But in other situations, such as the development of regional political parties, it has led to more fragmentation, and national governments have been able to stay in power only through the development of coalitions. Such coalitions may make governments dependent on regional political parties and thus diminish their ability to exert powers that may be legally available to them. Other kinds of political shifts, such as those that took place in reunified Germany, may also have affected the ability of the central government to act in some circumstances (either centrally or deferring to the latter). Immigration patterns also have an impact on the relationships between centralized and decentralized units.
The role of ideology. As the book indicates, some of the federal countries created constitutions based on particular ideological approaches to political and economic issues. Others did not. This seems to me to be an interesting issue to explore further and may allow us to devise more detailed typologies than those currently used by federalism scholars. For example, the Indian constitution clearly contains a social democratic approach to development and Indian independence.
Intergovernmental management. The earliest attention to the management approaches associated with federalism emphasized the vertical relationships between levels of government. As the field developed, it began to emphasize horizontal relationships among organizations, blending policy and administration by focusing on managers in the policy process and stressing bottom-up, collegial approaches to the relationships. Many of the behaviors described in federal systems are also found in unitary political systems, suggesting that the formal dichotomy between unitary and federal systems is not as great as has been suggested.
Although I have reservations about some of the cases in the volume, it is a clear tribute to the book that it generates discussion of issues that are not often included in the traditional approach to federalism. This work, and those to follow in the series, will be essential reference volumes for federal scholars in years to come.