What are federations and confederations? Also, why do I pay income tax!?

United Nations

CONTROVERSY ALERT: 7 of 10. UNLESS you’re a diehard southern confederate. If you are, it’s a 10 of 10.

Soooooo …. I live in the south. And there are crazy confederates here. As a dude originally born in Nebraska, a lot of this southern culture stuff is foreign to me. So when I hear confederation, I automatically think redneck … but I try not to overgeneralize. Also, to southerners’ credit, there are merits to confederations, which I will in fact run through.

So, two things to clarify in this writeup. If YOU know the difference between a federation and a confederation, then you might be bored reading this; OR my nitch writing style will keep you entertained.

What is a Federation, and what’s this tax issue?

Well, it’s a structure of government where each separate entity is equal in decision-making power, BUT there is a supreme authority over the individual parts.

Let’s dissect that a bit.

Again, you need to know what a state is (this concept comes up a lot). SO, if you don’t know what a state is, read this.

Imagine back in the day, American-style.

So Jamie Maddison, Georgie Washington, Alex Hamilton and others are all chilling, discussing how to govern ’n stuff at the Constitutional Convention. Prior to Constitutional creation, the United States was a loose confederation (the definition detailed below). The question comes up: How are we going to get already-established colonies to cooperate with one another? The only thing they want to do is help their own community, and nobody else. Also, NOBODY wants to pay taxes to ANYBODY! After all, isn’t that what this whole revolutionary war was all about? NOT paying taxes?

It was, which is hilarious. Because the revolution was funded with foreign money — because nobody wanted to pay uniform taxes to fund it. If I remember correctly, there was a “voluntary” tax to fund the war. So Americans have always been freeloaders!

The revolution WAS about not paying taxes (and I suppose independence), but it targeted UNFAIR taxes. So, before the revolution, all taxes were being sent back to England. It was like a tribute system … like the mafia. Essentially, you pay money for “protection” from the other world powers like France or Spain. If the colonies wanted to operate, then they had to pay the price to Britain, unless they wanted to be overrun by some other big-name country.

But the dudes who wrote the Constitution understood that there had to be a system to collect money for funding wars, supporting government, making buildings, and other public goods. In the old days, lots of taxes were collected from slave trading, liquor, sugar, and other stuff — but not individual income.

So, the question was: How can a system of “equal” colonies work together?

There were two choices; to federate or confederate.

If you federate, then there is one central power enforcing agreed decisions. The central power would enforce the law (Constitution), which included the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments), and others would be added later. Essentially, the federal power was created to ensure the rules of the game were upheld.

If, on the other hand, the choice was to confederate, then each separate power (colony) would be able to have veto power, and interpret and enforce the constitution however they please. Also, it would be a much looser relationship between states, because each state could effectively do whatever it wants.

Ultimately those colonial dudes decided that a central power was necessary to uphold the Constitution — because a non-unified authority would ultimately fail.

Southern views:

So the southern states never saw eye-to-eye with this conception of federal government. The southern colonies didn’t like the idea of more-powerful central authority.

Ultimately, creating a federation came at a cost. The concession for federation was that the Declaration would only apply to those considered to be in political life. And who was considered a political citizen in colonial times? White, land-owning males, and nobody else. From the beginning, declaring universal human rights while upholding slavery (as well as a non-voting female population) was pretty hypocritical. Again, I suspect this was done to get the initial deal brokered, and forge some form of consensus. After all, if concessions were NOT made, I doubt the American political project would exist.

To be fair to the southern confederate-centric view, at the Constitutional Convention, I’m sure there were paranoid views that one colony would invade the other. After all, each colony was going to be considered its own state, and at that time, states had a tendency of invading other states. Again, you really need to understand what a state is to understand politics.

Also, slavery was an integral part to preserving the aristocracy in the south, and if there’s anything a student of politics will tell you, it’s that breaking down traditional structures of power takes time, fighting (perhaps violence or war), and massive commitment from people (after all, raising an army is a difficult task). In colonial times, the agrarian-oriented aristocracy wanted cheap (or free) labor to create wealth and preserve power. This is similar to then-British conceptions of kingships. But instead of kings, the rule in the southern United States was of land-owning producers … sort of a blend of human traffickers, kings, and capitalists. This is not a shot against Southerners; but it is a shot against the southern aristocratic enterprise.

What is a confederation then!?

So, what is a confederation again? It’s where all of the components in the system are equal in power, and only unified consensus would seal decisions and policy. Imagine a board of business-types, and decisions about the business can only be made with 100% consensus. So, in a world where the United States was a confederation, if one state voted for slave ownership, it would have be upheld until that state voted otherwise.

Because of the stance on slavery, it’s easier to see why southern states rallied around the state-centric views of governance. If states could interpret the rules however they like, then slavery (meaning free labor for the aristocracy) could continually be upheld.

This state-centric view was so popular in the south that these states DID form a confederation during the Civil War. While I have not studied how the confederation actually functioned, I am willing to bet it wasn’t as efficient as the federal system. In the northern federation, Lincoln was able to declare marshall law, collect taxes, and forcefully unite the states that were remaining; whereas a confederation probably had looser control over territory, taxes, and districts.

** Also the southern confederation lost its European financiers once the war was billed as a “slave war” — essentially making their new currency worthless. This was a pretty big part of the southern defeat.

Other than slavery, there was major contention over whether or not states should be able to overwrite a central authority. These were the major issues at hand — and Civil War buffs I’m sure have much more to say on the subject.


Oh ya, the taxes. Well, ultimately wars depleted all federal money, and additional money was needed. So, in 1862 the Union implemented it’s first income-tax-like mechanism to fund war efforts. In 1906, the Supreme Court ruled that individual income tax was constitutional (although I’m not 100% the logic behind it, but you can look up the case), and Libertarians (and Tea Partiers) consequently have been angry ever since.

So it is. The federal government now collects individual income taxes (more on this to come). Plenty of political parties have ideas about how to spend the money (or find ways to abolish the taxes), and it’s the biggest debate in America — and, I think, the most-boring. For you accountant-like minds out there, I’m sure it’s a thrill going through thousands of pages of figures and projections, but to others it may not be their cup of tea. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that government record keeping is super meticulous, and almost unnecessarily so. So you budget hounds out there, have at it.

Also, have you ever looked up the budgeting process for the federal government? It’s extremely boring, and highly political with lots of fighting — mainly because it involves the House of Representatives more than anything. And the House is a feisty bunch — after all, you have to get a 51% majority from 435 people. … I can’t even get a few friends to agree on where to go get dinner.

You said that confederations had strengths!? GO ON … 

Yes. Confederations have their strengths. First, it ensures genuine 100% consensus, so there is no mistake of intentions and wishes.

The most-useful contemporary example is the United Nations organization.

So what is the United Nations, and what does it do?

First, the United Nations is a confederation of 193 countries around the world. The purpose is to talk about international issues and problems, to propose policies and treaties, and to make meaningful international development.

Is it efficient? Not at all. BUT, it wasn’t designed to be efficient. It was designed to keep governments talking and encourages cooperation, which is what it does.

In international politics, states are all 100% equal to one another in the sense that they can do whatever they want. So if Bulgaria wants to attack China; Bulgaria can do that with absolutely no regard for whatever any other state says (although it would be a poor strategic move). So, how do you control an anarchic environment like that? The best thing to do is create an organization to facilitate discussion, and hopefully foster cooperation.

So can the United Nations do anything!? Yes. It can; but it’s very difficult to get anything done.

The most-important principle of international politics is state security (because of anarchy). Security is so important that the most-powerful section of the United Nations is the Security Council. What’s the purpose of this council? To keep the world as secure as possible. BUT, there are many issues with this.

** Also, the United Nations is a replacement for the failed League of Nations.

CHECK IT OUT! An example of the confederate-style United Nations:

Here’s how the United Nations operates:

Imagine that Russia attacks Ukraine *GASP!*

The United Nations could THEORETICALLY do something about that; but in reality, they can’t. Why? Because of the confederate-style system of the United Nations.

There are 15 Security Council members. Ten change every few years, and 5 are permanent AND can veto actions. The permanent members are China, France, Russia, UK, and the United States. SO, if ONE of those states vetoes a proposed action, it won’t happen. If there isn’t 100% consensus, the action is void.

The point is that the United Nations MUST respect that states are individual states; and the organization goes out of its way to accommodate this view. Why? Because if it doesn’t, the United Nations wouldn’t exist at all.

Other than the Security Council, there are treaties that states can sign on to (anti-human trafficking commitments, human rights treaties, anti-arms proliferation agreements, border standard agreements, etc.); HOWEVER, because states are independent, they realistically don’t have to enforce anything. After all, what authority is going to tell them to enforce it? The United Nations can ask for implementation status and reports, but the states are by no means obligated to give any information. Usually they don’t report for the excuse of “state security.”

SOOOOO … is the United Nations doing anything? Well, it keeps intentions out in the open so the probability of misreading strategy remains at a minimum. So, it’s no secret that Russia will invade the Ukraine to regain territory. Also, backing Russian actions is China. Why? Because China itself wants to regain Hong Kong and Tibet territories. So, the Security Council can vote to punish Russian actions for a Ukrainian takeover, but both Russia and China would veto. Thus making Russian conduct legitimate.

Similarly, the United States went ahead with the (second) Iraq invasion without the United Nation’s approval (although Gulf War I was OK’d by the United Nations).

The application of a confederation may be the only viable option in some cases; but if federation is possible, it’s much more efficient and effective. In the United States, I would say that without federal control, the whole system would fall apart, and the framers made the right call by creating a federation. However, the weakness of a federation is that there is no authority to check central actions. So, then the question becomes: Who watches the watchmen? And there is no answer to that; the best you can hope for is justified Supreme Court decisions.

Federal systems insure levels of autonomy until challenged in the courts. Ultimately, the direction of state conduct is decided by the Supreme Court, because in the United States, there is no higher authority to make decisions about the constitutionality of actions.

So you political nerds, what’s better? Federations or confederations? I would say, it depends on the environment and organizational purpose.


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