Measuring De/Centralization

Measuring de/centralization has proved to be a difficult undertaking, although one that is becoming less so today, due to recent breakthroughs in scholarship. 

The following study by renowned federalism scholar John Kincaid provides the most accessible, comprehensive analysis of the centralization of policy functions to date.  As one part of a larger project to measure centralization in six federations, Kincaid's research provides a helpful overview not only of the cumulative effects of centralization in the United States, but also new ways to think about how centralization has occurred across policy dimensions over time. As outlined below, Kincaid finds evidence across twenty-two policy fields and five fiscal indicators for increasing centralization. While there is evidence of centralization" across the twenty-two policy fields," the largest shift seems to have occurred on legislative dimensions. 

There is no substitute for reading the original source, which can be found here:  John Kincaid, Dynamic De/Centralization in the United States, 1790-2010, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Volume 49, Issue 1, Winter 2019, Pages 166-193, https://doi.org/10.1093/publius/pjy032.

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Federal Outlays

Employment Share

IMF Data

Power Shift



Legislative autonomy refers to state governments' "control of primary legislative powers in a policy field. Administrative autonomy refers to the "degree to which states can implement federal laws and their own laws consistent with their own preferences." Below, autonomy is measured from 7 (=exclusively state) to 1 (=exclusively federal). A 'four' would indicate equal state and federal autonomy.


  • In a review of previous literature, Kincaid notes that all previous studies have reported centralization (albeit using different methods and with limitations on the validity of measures)

  • In his own research, Kincaid finds evidence for both legislative and administrative centralization across twenty-two policy fields. Trends move from "almost exclusively state in 1790" to predominantly federal" over time

  • However, consistent with other research (see above, "Power shift"), there are variations in the timing, sequence, and pace of centralization across fields

  • Notably, Kincaid finds that fiscal centralization is less evident over time. Four of Kincaid's five fiscal measures, for example, experienced "mild centralization." This supports the view that the United States is comparatively non-centralized, fiscally (citing Kim Junghun, ed., Institutions of intergovernmental fiscal relations. Paris: OECD 2015)

  • The magnitude of legislative centralization is nearly twice as large as administrative change (consistent with the idea of states "serving as administrative agents of the federal government")

  • The pace of centralization was slow, overall, "picking up speed in the twentieth century." Centralization spiked during the New Deal. Yet, more "substantial centralization occurred from 1960-1980 as Congress and the Supreme Court acted increasingly on social matters and expanded federal power into the remaining policy fields, including areas previously having few federal constraints, such as culture, education, environmental protection, health, and language." 

  • Measurement indicates that states have "lost" more legislative than administrative autonomy, suggesting that we are moving toward "indirect federal administration" (quoting Macmahon 1972, 22), a system in which states are increasingly administrative agents for the national government. 


We believe the above analyses merit extra attention, not only for researchers, but teachers and policymakers and members of the general public. These two projects on "Power Shift" and "De/Centralization" provide an essential starting point for any inquiry in to the measurement of American federalism, but also, interpretation and analysis of centralizing trends. 

In particular, readers interested in changes to the federal system should take note of the primary empirical conclusion, namely, that the federal system has moved almost exclusively from state authority in the founding (1790) to the modern era (2010). Four caveats, however, from this same research suggest a need for nuance and more research: 


  1. States still wield significant administrative autonomy, despite the centralizing forces;

  2. There is less evidence for radical fiscal centralization, suggesting a need for nuance and education; 

  3. Triggers for centralization are multifaceted and complex and should be included in discussions or attempts to "redraw" the boundaries;

  4. The Constitutional basis for centralizing fields is ambiguous, and likely to provoke subjective analysis.