Perry, Santorum feud over states legislating morality

| September 29, 2011

A peripheral skirmish between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum over allowing states to legalize same-sex marriage and medical marijuana could mark an important turning point in a long-running philosophical debate within the conservative movement.

To be sure, there’s nothing new about conflict between social-conservative and libertarian Republicans when it comes to the role of government in moral issues. But what is interesting this time around is that Perry, a candidate who is hoping to appeal to social conservatives, is shifting the debate ever so slightly toward the libertarian position.

There are two questions at the heart of the debate: First, does government have a role in promoting morality through lawmaking? Second, should states and local communities answer this question rather than the federal government?

On the first question, there isn’t much daylight between Santorum and Perry. Each believes that marriage should only be allowed between a man and a woman, and opposes legalizing medical marijuana.

But it’s on the second question — on balancing the role between federal and state power — where the two have clashed.

Last year, Perry wrote the book “Fed Up!” that argued that most decisions should be made at the local and state level, as close to the people as possible — as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

“From marriage to prayer, from zoning laws to tax policy, from our school systems to health care, it is essential to our liberty that we be allowed to live as we see fit through the democratic process at the local and state level,” Perry wrote.

During his presidential campaign, Perry has repositioned himself a bit, emphasizing that he favors a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman at the federal level. However, he hasn’t backed away from his position that until such an amendment passes, the issue should be left to the states. His spokesman reaffirmed this to the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin this week. He also reiterated that Perry believes states should be able to decide whether to legalize medical marijuana.

A spokesman for Santorum shot back that “Sen. Santorum is certainly an advocate for states’ rights, but he believes as Abraham Lincoln — that states do not have the right to legalize moral wrongs.”

Santorum may be driven by an earnest concern over the erosion of values, but it’s chilling to analogize Lincoln’s opposition to slavery in new territories with contemporary attempts to legislate morality at the federal level.

Beyond this unfortunate framing of the issue, the legislation of morality infringes upon personal liberty and sets arbitrary standards. It’s hard to make a consistent moral argument for why people are free to consume the destructive drug of alcohol, but not marijuana. Also, the willingness of some conservatives to assert federal power on moral issues paves the way for abuses by the federal government on economic issues.

For sure, nobody would confuse Perry with a libertarian purist. But it is encouraging that a top Republican candidate courting social-conservative voters is willing to recognize that consistency on federalism often means supporting the right of other states to pass laws that he finds objectionable.

Philip Klein is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner.

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