The General Welfare clause of the U.S. Constitution is dangerous because it is often misunderstood and misapplied.
One of the puzzling trends in our national culture is the shift away from a country committed to the rights of sovereign individuals and the autonomy of sovereign states to a country acquiescing to ever-increasing power by the Federal Government.
What makes this shift even more puzzling is that our Constitution was intentionally structured to prevent it from happening. The authors of the Constitution had just fought a revolutionary war to free America from the abuses of a strong central government in London. They had every intention of preventing the rise of another strong central government here in America.
One of the causes of this puzzling shift can be found in the Preamble and in the General Welfare clause of the Constitution. The Preamble declares that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And then Article I, Section 8, Clause I stipulates that “Congress shall have the 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…”
There are many who interpret these references to mean that the Federal Government is empowered to do whatever is necessary to promote the general welfare of Americans. However, this interpretation can lead only to an ever-expanding government that leverages the limitless ambiguity of the phrase “general welfare” into a vast array of programs and expenditures spawned by all conceivable concerns of the public. With a little political cleverness, almost any problem in our society can be construed to fall under the umbrella of the “general welfare”.
But that interpretation of the role of our Federal Government is a big mistake that would render the rest of the Constitution irrelevant. If that’s what the Founders believed, they could have simply reduced the Constitution to one phrase: “We hereby establish a totalitarian central government empowered to do anything it wishes so long as it claims to act for the general welfare (whatever that means).”
What then did the Founders mean when they made constitutional reference to the general welfare?
The Founders were addressing two major concerns by using that phrase. The first was a historical concern related to all powerful governments, including the British Monarchy. Central governments have a nasty habit of becoming playthings for rich and powerful Elites who leverage the institutions of society for their own benefit and protection. Power always accumulates from the many to the few if it finds an opportunity. For example, in Great Britain, there were long-standing rules regarding Primogeniture and Entail which were designed to prevent the great landed estates of the nobility from being broken up. An estate could only be passed to the eldest male heir (primogeniture), and it could not be broken up and sold as smaller estates (entail). This prevented the mass of commoners from gaining ownership of small parcels of land, thereby keeping all power and wealth among the Elites.
That is just one example among thousands showing how the Elites have historically used and abused government power to protect their own ascendancy. The Founders objected to this approach, believing that a government of “We the People” must be a government that makes and enforces laws intended for the general welfare of all, not the welfare of specific individuals or privileged classes of people.
Furthermore, the phrase “general welfare” had severe limitations. It did not mean that Congress (or any other branch of the Federal Government) could do anything it pleased so long as it could point to some benefit for the public. If that was the case, then, as James Madison wrote, the rest of the Constitution should be torn up. The Constitution is essentially a mechanism for constraining government power to very specific, defined, and limited actions. The Federal Government should never act beyond these limits, even if concerns for the general welfare beg for such action. However, when the government does act within the limits of its Constitutional authority, those actions must be for the benefit of everyone, not the benefit of certain people or classes.
Let’s test this with some examples. Expenditures for national defense pass this test – they are authorized by the Constitution, and they benefit everyone. The same is true for expenditures on a system of courts that give all citizens an opportunity to address their grievances.
On the other hand, expenditures that transfer wealth from some citizens to others would seem to fail this test. Should money be taken from some citizens to bail out a major corporation? How about to subsidize students who don’t wish to pay back their education loans? How about to subsidize people who wish to buy an electric car? Arguments can (and are) made that such transfers of wealth provide some indirect and vague benefit for society. But this is the slippery slope that leads only to a totalitarian government intent on imposing itself in all aspects of society. This is exactly the slippery slope that the Founders desperately wished to avoid. They did not want the Federal Government to become an omnipotent tool for some people to use to their advantage at the expense of other people.
If the Federal Government becomes involved in fixing everything, it must necessarily control everything. The more intrusive a government becomes, the less justice, freedom, and fairness remain in a society, because intrusive governments always pick winners and losers. If the Federal Government assumes the mantle of addressing every aspect of the general welfare, it will destroy the spontaneous collaboration and reciprocity that naturally emerge in a free society, and it will impose instead a bureaucratic, administrative stranglehold on all activity and progress. This is the disturbing trend that is becoming more and more apparent in America. People forget that what the Federal government gives with one hand it must first take with the other. Every government program brings with it regulations, expenses, taxes, bureaucrats, and enforcers.
The Founders did not intend the General Welfare clause to be a collectivist rallying cry for the Federal Government to “fix everything”. Instead, it is a demand for equal treatment under the law, but only to the extent that the Constitution allows for the creation of a law. It does not grant Congress unlimited power to provide for the general welfare. It compels Congress, when it exercises its strictly limited powers, to do so only for the benefit of the general welfare, not for the benefit of narrow or special interests.
The second reason why the Founders inserted the General Welfare phrase into the Constitution was to protect the interests of the individual states. It is important to remember that the Constitution was a pact ratified by the individual states to authorize the creation of a central government with very limited authority. Each of the states wished to retain a great deal of their own autonomy to act in their own interest. During the founding, there was great resistance to a powerful central government that could usurp the authority of the states. This was the very reason the Tenth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights.
In this context, a function of the General Welfare clause is to require the Federal Government to exercise its authority only when it is in the interests of all the states, not just one or a few. The Founding states were very afraid that the larger and more populous states would leverage the economic and regulatory power of the Federal Government to gain special advantages over the smaller and less populous states. This is still a valid concern today as the large population centers of America hold inordinate sway over the Federal government, which has unfortunately expanded its power way beyond its original boundaries.
Today, many citizens are fearful that if the General Welfare clause continues to be interpreted incorrectly, issues like climate change, social justice, and pandemics will be used as justifications to overwhelm the enumerated powers clauses of the Constitution, leaving us with a limitless Federal Government that intrudes deeper and deeper into every crevice of our lives. That’s called a dictatorship, and it is on the rise in America.
When a dictatorship gains power, it is because people and groups concede power to it piecemeal without perceiving the monstrosity that is gradually evolving. People mindlessly enslave themselves, forging the chains link by link, pleading for the government to take care of them and relieve them of their responsibilities. They forget that even though making choices in an environment of self-responsibility is very challenging, the alternative is bureaucrats making the choices for them in an environment of pure obedience.
William Tyler Page described the cultural perspective of the Founders best when he drafted the American’s Creed: “I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me. I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the state of calm of utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout…It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid; to think and act myself, enjoy the benefits of my creations, and to face the world boldly…”
The simple truth of such a philosophy is that the general welfare of all will be most assured when each person peacefully looks after the welfare of themselves and their loved ones.
On the other hand, as the government gets more involved in the lives of everyone for everything, the political struggle for control of the government gets more intense, wasteful, and perhaps even violent. It becomes a contest of winners versus losers as various political administrations cycle through their cronyism and their partisan initiatives. The country gets less focused on production and collaboration and more focused on looting each other and fighting against each other. Predatory people become ascendent over productive people. Political means replace economic means. The skills most prized become coercion, dishonesty, and politics, and the least prized become risk-taking, character, and hard work.
And that’s where we are today.