Robert Meyer
Liberals misunderstand the meaning of general Welfare
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By Robert Meyer
December 14, 2017

In determining the root of the differences between 'progressive' political objectives and those precepts promoted by the U.S. Constitution, the greatest mischief has been created through the misapplication and misinterpretation of the General Welfare Clause, whereby the federal government has a duty to provide or promote the general welfare. This directive is found in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

Our fourth President, James Madison, often known as the father on our Constitution, makes this statement concerning the Cod Fishery Bill, dated February 7, 1792, referring to a proposed bill to subsidize cod fisherman

"If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare,

they may take the care of religion into their own hands;

they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish

and pay them out of their public treasury;

they may take into their own hands the education of children,

establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union;

they may assume the provision of the poor;

they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads;

in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation

down to the most minute object of police,

would be thrown under the power of Congress.... Were the power

of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for,

it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature

of the limited Government established by the people of America."

One obvious point to be made about the above quotation is that virtually everything other then complete control of religious worship, which Madison warned against in his observation, congress is already doing as a matter of course.

Both major political parties have been guilty of simply ignoring the true intent of the General Welfare Clause. That has been the source of excessive governmental debt, and has rendered even progressive levels of taxation on wealthier segments of the population completely inadequate.

At the time the Constitution was framed, the concept of general welfare (those policies that could potentially benefit all citizens) was contrasted with 'specific welfare' (policies that benefited certain groups or citizens of certain states over others).

Furthermore, the idea of 'general welfare' was linked to the limitations of the federal government as dictated by their enumerated powers. Of course, the concept of federalism didn't prohibit the individual state governments from doing many of the things referenced in Madison's quote. Often conservatives fall into the trap of assuming that what is true for the federal government must be true of state governments and local municipalities.

The problems associated with the concept of 'general welfare' have become more pervasive as we have moved steadily away from our founding principles. As recently as 1937, it was far from certain the Supreme Court would find the Social Security Act constitutional, as a function of general welfare.

One of the big problems for most of us, is that we have heard arguments about the sustainability of government programs and the perils of growing national public debt for so long without significant consequences, that it becomes easy to ignore such warning as alarmism.

Being a realist I understand the difficulties in suddenly arriving at an originalist interpretation of 'general welfare.' Obviously, this could pull the rug out from under many of us.

So here's my own compromise. as it pertains to any new legislation, consider whether it moves us further away from the original idea of general welfare, or moves back toward it. Let's at least enact policies that move us back in the right direction.

© Robert Meyer

 

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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)

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