Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The General Welfare clause

If you are a liberal, there are only three phrases in the Constitution that you are aware of:
  1. Provide for the general Welfare
  2. Separation of Church and State
  3. Right to privacy
You are undeterred by the fact that only one of these phrases actually occurs in the Constitution, and you have never actually bothered to read the entire sentence containing that phrase, in spite of your eagerness to use that phrase to justify nearly all of your legislative agenda.

Congress uses the "Welfare" clause to claim the authority for just about anything they want to do, from punishing people who don't buy a certain product to regulating the gas you exhale.

The "Welfare" clause is found in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of Congress:
The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
Liberals who quote this never quote the entire sentence, or even bother to mention "the common defense" which they find to be yucky icky. Nor do they acknowledge the meaning of the word "General" which requires that their actions benefit everyone, not pay off one person at the expense of another. They can't be bothered to consider the context of the language which indicates that the phrase does not give them the authority to do anything they want so long as they claim that it is for the general welfare. James Madison said it like this: “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

The drafters of the Constitution discussed the actual meaning of the welfare clause at great length, and clarified exactly what it means and what it does not mean. Thomas Jefferson made the case that the clause specifies reasons for which Congress may collect taxes (or as one reader pointed out, borrow money, which is just a tax to be collected in the future), and does not grant Congress any other authority for sweeping forays into people's lives for our own good.
"To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States, that is to say, "to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare." For the laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union.They are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. To consider the latter phrase not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please which might be for the good of the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless. It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please... Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them. It was intended to lace them up straitly within the enumerated powers and those without which, as means, these powers could not be carried into effect." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on National Bank, 1791. ME 3:147-148
Jefferson made the argument that the "Welfare" clause did not give Congress the authority to do anything, so long as it was claimed to be "for the general welfare" because such an interpretation would render the following enumeration of powers meaningless. Why should the Constitution list out in great detail the specific actions which Congress is authorized to take if all of those actions and more are authorized by the welfare clause?
"Our tenet ever was that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated, and that, as it was never meant that they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation of the purposes for which they may raise money." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817. ME 15:133
Jefferson had good reason to be concerned, as politicians, eager to expand their own power, have indeed used this clause to claim the authority to impose all sorts of laws which have nothing to do with laying taxes, and even when they are writing tax laws, those laws are rarely uniform, but instead are written to grant special status to the author's supporters and constituents. You can read through the sixteen enumerated powers granted to Congress, but you won't find anything permitting them to do much of what they do today. There is nothing permitting them to redistribute wealth from those who produce it to those who don't. Congress has no authority to mandate that citizens buy medical insurance or to punish those who don't comply. Congress has no business telling you what kind of light bulb to use or what kind of toilet to have in your bathroom. Neither do they have the power to dictate to banks who they must lend money to, bail out failed companies, attempt to control or stimulate the economy, or nationalize industries. Most of the intrusive busybody laws passed by Congress are based on a blatant misapplication of the welfare clause.
"Aided by a little sophistry on the words "general welfare," [the federal branch claim] a right to do not only the acts to effect that which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think or pretend will be for the general welfare." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1825. ME 16:147

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” – James Madison, 1792
And finally, from a letter Jefferson wrote to George Washington:
"If it were assumed that the general government has a right to exercise all powers which may be for the 'general welfare,' that would include all the legitimate powers of government, since no government has a legitimate right to do what is not for the welfare of the governed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:397


todd said...

Now, "yucky icky": is that Latin?

Don Dodson said...

No Todd, that is French, the native language of the liberal.

BonnieGadsden said...

I like your piece, I linked to it from my site.