General Welfare

The “general welfare” clause is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution: first, in the preamble and second, it is found in Article 1, Section 8.

The preamble reads: “WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure 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.”

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution refers to the “general welfare” thus: “The 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. . .”

The preamble clearly defines the two major functions of government: (1) ensuring justice, personal freedom, and a free society where individuals are protected from domestic lawbreakers and criminals, and; (2) protecting the people of the United States from foreign aggressors.

When the Founding Fathers said that “WE THE PEOPLE” established the Constitution to “promote the general Welfare,” they did not mean the federal government would have the power to aid education, build roads, and subsidize business. Likewise, Article 1, Section 8 did not give Congress the right to use tax money for whatever social and economic programs Congress might think would be good for the “general welfare.”

James Madison stated that the “general welfare” clause was not intended to give Congress an open hand  “to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare.” If by the “general welfare,” the Founding Fathers had meant any and all social, economic, or educational programs Congress wanted to create, there would have been no reason to list specific powers of Congress such as establishing courts and maintaining the armed forces. Those powers would simply have been included in one all-encompassing phrase, to “promote the general welfare.”

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, once observed: “Our Constitution professedly rests upon the good sense and attachment of the people. This basis, weak as it may appear, has not yet been found to fail.”

It is NOT the government’s business (constitutionally) to “help” individuals in financial difficulty.  Once they undertake to provide those kinds of services, they must do so with limited resources, meaning that some discriminating guidelines must be imposed. (so many who need that kind of help- so little resources to provide it.)

The Founding Fathers said in the preamble that one reason for establishing the Constitution was to “promote the general welfare.” What they meant was that the Constitution and powers granted to the federal government were not to favor special interest groups or particular classes of people. There were to be no privileged individuals or groups in society. Neither minorities nor the majority was to be favored.  Rather, the Constitution would promote the “general welfare” by ensuring a free society where free, self-responsible individuals - rich and poor, bankers and shopkeepers, employers and employees, farmers and blacksmiths - would enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Quoting the Tenth Amendment, Jefferson wrote: “I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.’ To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

Writing about the “general welfare” clause in 1791, Thomas Jefferson saw the danger of misinterpreting the Constitution. The danger in the hands of Senators and Congressmen was “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.”  Unlike public officials during Jefferson’s time, our modern-day legislators have a very loose interpretation of the Constitution. The result is that government has mushroomed into a monolithic bureaucracy.

Once the government opens its arms (and bank accounts), it divides the citizens into two groups:  those who receive direct (personal, individual) benefit from the government, and those who do not.  That is why the founders designed a FEDERAL system of government that provided only for the “GENERAL” (meaning- non-specific) WELFARE of the people by confining its services to things like “national defense” and “interstate commerce”.  It leaves to the states the issues of HOW or WHEN other services are provided to specific sub-groups. HOWEVER (This is critical) the new government must represent the BEST INTERESTS of all the people, which logically means that it MUST be limited in scope, for the MORE a government undertakes, the more oppressive it becomes. Government MUST be ANCHORED in fundamental principles (see lecture notes).

If you advocate for federal spending on social welfare programs, you are describing a redistribution of income (MY income) for the benefit of Specific individual citizens INSTEAD of (for example) a strong national defense. Which of those activities is the government LEGALLY REQUIRED to perform? (hint: Art. I, Sec. 8, U.S. Constitution.)

If the Federal government MUST do certain things, and something is NOT EXPRESSLY STATED in the constitution as a duty of Federal Government, then HOW (or WHOM) should any other services be provided? (Hint: Tenth Amendment)