A Comparative Curiousity

My students tend to get confused between a unitary form of government (a single national-level government, as opposed to a federal system) and unicameralism (having one house of the legislature). So I put together this handy chart using the countries listed in our text. It’s kind of curious. (For those who are unsure, symmetric bicameralism means the two house of the legislature have roughly equal authority, while asymmetric bicameralism means one has significantly more authority; think the British Parliament). The empty cell is curious, because it’s by no means a theoretical impossibility (and since I haven’t checked all the world’s democracies yet, I don’t know that it’s nonexistent).



About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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19 Responses to A Comparative Curiousity

  1. Matty says:

    The UK has a single national level government? Alex Salmond is going to be really pissed off and you don’t want an angry Scotsman.

    More seriously this system does seem to leave out cases like Britain, which we might call partial federalism. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own governments that in some ways relate to Westminster like states to a federal government but England has no equivalent and the powers of the different governments vary.

  2. Landifer666 says:

    Alex Salmond is going to be really pissed off and you don’t want an angry Scotsman.

    But is he a true Scotsman?

  3. lumbercartel says:

    I suspect that a unicameral federation is not terribly stable. Either the “states” have no independent representation in the national government and devolve into administrative districts (like US counties) or they are the only entities at the national level with all of the tendencies to become loose confederations — which don’t seem to be terribly stable. Or common.

    If you look at the histories of the federal governments, they all evolved out of looser confederations with no strong national identity (often colonies.) India and Switzerland aren’t even unified in language; one was a confederation of cantons united for defence and the other created by a foreign empire. Austria and Germany haven’t had any real national identity until the 19th century either, nor any real national language or culture; the various regions (Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, etc.) rearranged themselves for centuries before unification.

  4. Murali says:

    Some places with asymmetric bicameral systems have one of the houses so powerless as to be merely vestigial. Malaysia is an example. At first I thought it was unicameral, but when I checked Wikipedia, I found myself to be wrong. Thus, since asymmetricality can come in degrees it seems as if some asymmetric bicameral systems may approach unicameral systems.

  5. Matty says:

    Lumbercartel, one thing that fascinates me is how arbitrary ‘nationalities’ are , we seem to pick some characteristic and declare that all the people who have that in a given area are a nation but which characteristic varies wildly. Serbs and Croats speak the same language (near enough) but are two nations*, the Swiss speak four languages but are one.

    *Yes Yugoslavia but even within that the two groups had distinct identities that inspired separate nationalisms.

  6. pierrecorneille says:


    I think there’s a tipping point, though, before we get the trend to unicameralism. In the US, as far as initiating legislation goes, the two houses are asymmetrical (only the House of Reps can introduce appropriations bills, at least in theory…..I’m still how Obamacare, as introduced in the Senate, wasn’t an appropriations bill), but they don’t seem to be trending toward unicameralism. (“As far as initiating legislation goes” might be doing a lot of work here. The Senate has special prerogatives in its “advice and consent” role to the executive branch that in the scheme of things it probably balances out whatever asymmetricality would tip the balance in favor of the HR.)

  7. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Matty, All the American books treat UK as a unitary government. It doesn’t seem right to me, but I’m not a comparativist so I just go with the flow.

    Pierre, “only the House of Reps can introduce appropriations bills, at least in theory.” But the Senate can develop its own appropriations bills, and after they do a conference committee between House and Senate to get unified language, it just has to be voted on by the House first, so that’s pretty pro forma these days.

    “I’m still how Obamacare, as introduced in the Senate, wasn’t an appropriations bill”
    If you can ignore the snarky tone (it’s written by a Christian conservative), and keep in mind that when the author says 60 votes are needed to pass legislation he actually means to end a filibuster, this does a decent job of explaining it simply.

  8. Matty says:

    Wow, they took an existing bill and replaced all the words? Regardless of the subject that is genius.

  9. J@m3z Aitch says:


    Technically, it’ just an amendment to the original bill. But instead of just, say, adding a couple paragraphs with some new details, they excise all the old and put in new, oh, and with an entirely new subject matter, by the way. It’s not unknown, but of course not very common.

  10. pierrecorneille says:

    Re UK as non-unitary:

    Isn’t that a more recent development, like in the last 20 years?

    That question having been asked, I do think I read somewhere a while ago that discussed how the law in Scotland still retained some distinctive features from the law in England after the Act of Union. Scottish courts had, at least for a time, a certain amount of autonomy with some kinds of cases (civil as opposed to criminal?). Anyway, I assume Matty knows more about UK history than I do. But I’m curious.

  11. Matty says:

    You are right about the time frame and that may be it. It is entirely possible American text books would not bother to update on something relatively recent that isn’t their focus anyway. The Scottish court system is and alway has been completely separate on both civil and criminal law and has its own terminology and procedures. Whether the law those courts apply is different though is much more variable, I think they are bound by UK level primary legislation but not by precedents from outside Scotland.

  12. pierrecorneille says:

    Thanks Matty. In the US schools I went to, we got almost no schooling in British government, or any non-American government. I don’t think I even understood the broad outlines of how parliamentary systems worked until I took a comparative poli sci class as an undergrad.

    We did get a little instruction in British history–the Magna Charta, Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church, some (probably inaccurate and idealized) discussion of the Elizabethan era, the Glorious Revolution, the wars of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution, and the Battle of Britain.

    But it was mostly very schematic and in a weird way nationalistic, with England/Britain/UK being a sort of European proxy for the type of patriotism we were supposed to show for the US. There was something about how bad the Irish suffered during the famine and about British imperialism in Africa, China (opium wars), and especially India. But it was whitewashed in a similar way that the US’s own mistakes were whitewashed. About the only anti-British/anti-English treatment came in during the courses on the American Revolution, in which we were taught to believe the colonists were so right, and the British so wrong and tyrannical, that only a fool would believe otherwise. And even then, it wasn’t “the English,” it was “the King.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I think I had a very good secondary education in history, including British history. But those were the biases.

  13. Matty says:

    To be honest it sounds like your history education was better than mine, I was always interested in history and childrens history books were among the first books I had but quickly gave up on the subject in school because they were teaching us at 14 stuff I had read a 7 (in a book aimed at 7 year old I might add) and the curriculum was so focussed on World War II they could have renamed the subject Hitlery.

    It does seem a little odd blaming King George so much for British actions against the American colonists as I believe his reign helped with the shift to the monarch being a figurehead with his being frequently out of action due to his ‘madness’ and the Prince Regent unpopular enough there was little appetite for involving him in government.

  14. pierrecorneille says:

    “and the curriculum was so focussed on World War II they could have renamed the subject Hitlery.”

    It’s a little known fact that Matty’s teachers were later hired on as program directors for the History Channel :)

  15. J@m3z Aitch says:

    My colleague in our History department used to teach a course on 20th century Germany, but all the students cared about was the Nazi stuff, in which they were a little too interested. As a Jewish person, she found it disturbing enough to quit teaching the class.

  16. lancifer666 says:

    Well, to be fair, the non-Hitler part of 20th century German history is kind’a small potatoes in the over-all history of the world. The WWI stuff is the pre-text for WWII and the Soviet occupation of East Germany is a small foot note to the history of the Soviet union.

    And the Nazi’s had those cool uniforms. You just can’t beat a good pair of black leather boots and a pair of jaunty jodhpurs.

  17. Matty says:

    On the other hand the fall of the Berlin wall while only a small part of the collapse of communism was one of the most high profile parts. I also can’t help thinking there must be something interesting in the fact the Federal Republic got from total devastation in 1945 to the point where it had the political and economic strength to absorb East Germany almost without pausing for breath.

    There is something about black leather though.

  18. lancifer666 says:

    Sort’a like the non-Genghis Khan part of 13th century Mongolian history.

  19. trumwill says:

    James’ story of the Germany class reminds me of the most popular class at my school, which was called The History of Evil and just moves from one atrocity to the next. I didn’t take it and am not quite sure of the fascination.

    One class I did take a really enjoyed (though the professor didn’t like me) was American History 1946-60. It was really kind of a “down time” in between World War II and the sixties. We got the Korean War, but it was really interesting to be studying year by year a time period without everything being eclipsed by a bit thing. It was apparently supposed to be a precursor for a 1961-76 class, though my experience with the professor and my non-LA major had me not taking that class.

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