Moral Dimensions of Federalism
A constitution establishes a structure for the government and identifies fundamental principles that guide relationships within that structure. Framers of the federal structure of the United States Constitution intended to disperse power, safeguard liberty, and foster leadership by those motivated by a "love of justice" and a heightened sense of the "public good." 1 A system that limited self-interested factions from abusing power at society's expense also protected fundamental moral standards. In the words of Justice William Brennan: "Federalism is a device for realizing the concepts of decency and fairness which are among the fundamental principles of liberty and justice lying at the base of all our civil and political institutions." 2
Successive generations of Americans have engaged in virtually constant debate regarding the purpose, merits, and constitutional stature of federalism. We question whether local or central governments will best foster economic growth, advance social welfare, or protect against tyranny. Behind the façade of these debates, however, issues of morality often hang in the balance. By focusing on federalism, generations of Americans have avoided responsibility for issues ranging from slavery to the death penalty.
The discussion that follows begins with an historical view of this relationship between morality and federalism. It challenges the concept of federalism as a "neutral" principle that separates state and national authority, and seeks to demonstrate that federalism has a moral dimension that may weigh on the side of either state or federal responsibility, depending upon the context of the debate. It also proposes a framework for resolving these issues within the constitutional structure of the United States. The goal is to reassess the use of federalism arguments so that issues of morality will not be hidden or sacrificed because of expressed concerns for specific structural values.