Unlike monolithic forms of government, federations are alliances of more or less independent states...

Unlike monolithic forms of government, federations are alliances of more or less independent states, often with little in common but their desire to share in the benefits of swimming in a larger pond. The most durable example of confederation is Switzerland, where a workable union of divergent cultures has survived for more than seven hundred years. In modern Switzerland there are twenty-six semiautonomous cantons (and half-cantons), which together compose four major cultural groups, each with its own language and customs. Perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of federalism is that the Confederaziun Helvetica endures despite this remarkable diversity (tolerating even the reactionary values of one half-canton that is the last political body in the Western world to deny women the vote in local elections). In general, federations allow member units to pursue their unique –even quirky- interests, to realize their distinctive possibilities, and to address their special needs, as long as the units do not compromise the rights of other members or the needs of the alliance as a whole.

In that most successful of federations –our own resilient alliance of states- the whole is greater than the sum of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and the other disparate but essential components of the Union. In these rapidly changing times, such federations as the United States work better than monolithic nations (like the former, misnamed, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) because they offer flexibility as well as strength. By their nature federal systems recognize the legitimacy of alternatives, of more than one possible response to a given challenge. If a federation were a poem, it would be not the epic saga of a single national hero but something like Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Committed to a single vision and course of action, a unitary government is often too slow to respond to changing conditions. In contrast to the singular stance of the monolithic state, federations are nimble by nature, accustomed to considering a full repertoire of responses. While the unitary nation goes for all or nothing, federations multiply the options and reduce the risk. In theory, at least, federations are also less prone to the ethnic animosities that are the ugliest aspects of hyperpatriotism. The very existence of a federation is implicit recognition that there is strength in diversity. In homogeneous groups outsiders are too often seen as monsters, devils, or obstacles on the road to “racial purity”. But it is much harder to dehumanize outsiders in a heterogeneous alliance in which others are viewed as peers and partners (albeit ethnic vilification is not impossible in federations, as the former Yugoslav republics sadly demonstrate). James Madison, the guiding light of American federalism, argued that the true virtue of such a system lies in its recognition of the natural tendency toward the pursuit of self-interest -and in its built- in mechanism to counter that tendency by protecting the rights of minorities from “The tyranny of the majority.”


Fuente: An Invented Life. Warren Bennis. Basic Books. New York. 1994.


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