Monday, June 11, 2007

The Right construction of "General Welfare"

The term "General Welfare" is mentioned in two places in the Constitution - the preamble which we all know:

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.

and it also specifically grants the privilege to execute this duty to Congress in Article 1, Section 8:

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 history and the debate over what is actually authorized under the general welfare clause is something that has been discussed ever since. See, both sides, Left and Right, can use "the Founding Fathers intention" argument as there was significant disagreement between them (Hamilton and Madison in particular) in terms of what it meant. The ultimate decision of course comes down to the Supreme Court to determine whether the laws made by Congress pass muster, so to speak. In fact, when FDR was implementing his New Deal, he had to make significant changes in the Supreme Court in order for them to back his grand vision, because up to that point they had used a strict constructionist view. I'm not going to be able to solve this debate in this post, but I'll briefly describe what I think was covered by this phrase and how I think "General Welfare" should be handled in the future to prevent abuses of it by anyone.

In my personal view (and in the view of many others), General Welfare simply means that there should be no special privilege given to any group (implying an exclusion of others) by the federal government. Instead, measures taken by the federal government under the general welfare clause must be applicable to everyone. Many people are slightly more liberal, including at times the Supreme Court, that the test for General Welfare should simply be "local" versus "national", which is fair enough I suppose, but it leads to additional interpretation of "What does local mean?". For example, do you consider subsidies to farmers as a local issue because of uneven distribution of farmers and the fact that not everyone is a farmer? You could certainly argue the case that the food supply is a national issue though and therefore should be allowable under the General Welfare clause. But then, what about natural disasters like Hurricane Andrew. It was very localized (as opposed to something like Hurricane Katrina that had a very wide path, and so I'll leave it out of the debate for now :) ). I was actually in Miami at the time, and volunteered in what little ways I could. The devastation was horrendous. What kind of nation are we if we don't take care of the localities that are hit by these natural disasters? Do you see the slippery slope that's created by a loose interpretation of the General Welfare clause? This is the very core of the debate between the Left and the Right. The problem though is that the Republican party has slowly fallen victim to that slippery slope and so representatives elected by those people who want a strict view of General Welfare used for the purposes of legislation have a very hard time keeping the Right to the Right.

The same argument can't be said of the Left. It's incredibly difficult to convince someone on the Left that a strict constructionist view has it's merits because it's such a steep slope to climb. So what can those on the Right do? Well, I think a consensus view that does bridge the gap between the far left and the far right is as follows:
Measures taken by the federal government to provide for the General Welfare must be accessible universally and without qualification.
Hmmm. So under that strict interpretation, you could, for example, have a system that allowed for something like a Universal Single Payor Health Care system, right? Well, I would argue that doesn't work, but that's not the subject of this debate. What it does do is it solves the issue of local versus national. It solves my need to have a strict construction of the Constitution, it solves the left's need to be needy (sorry lefties :) ), and, to my way of thinking anyway, it brings the two sides together in an equitable way.

Now, there are some problems here. For one - lefties aren't going to like how this clears up the gray area that Congress has used for decades to pass laws that are not Constitutionally authorized. For example, Social Security in it's current form would be considered unconstitutional because I, as a 30 year old (or so) have a different set of qualifications then someone who's in their 50's (and really, everyone who is below retirement age or who isn't a "survivor" has yet to "Qualify" for it). By all means, I'm open to debate on the definition, but whatever your alternative is, it must provide for a cut and dry determination so that even the lawyers in Congress can't weasel out of it.

I think it's important to cover what's not up for debate. Foreign aid doesn't provide for the General Welfare (as so eloquently argued by Ron Paul). Disaster relief is, almost by it's very nature, a local issue and not a national one. And special interests and pork barrel spending are explicitly excluded as they do not meet the definition of General Welfare in any sense.

So, am I Right or what?
-Andrew Douglas


FreedomsAdvocate said...

The general welfare clause is the most abused clause in the whole constitution. What was intended to be a restriction; i.e., effects all the people, has been morphed into anything that effects any of the people.

IMHO, would be a great reason for an amendment covention:

I would define General Welfare as:

Any action which benefits all Americans indiscriminately, and cannot be accomplished by the individual Americans or the States themselves.

Denver Obsession said...

"Any action which benefits all Americans indiscriminately, and cannot be accomplished by the individual Americans or the States themselves."

I like that, too. Especially the "cannot be accomplished by the individuals or states themselves" line. However, I think that still leaves the underlying Left vs Right conflict unfought.

Can free men/women provide for themselves? The Right would say "Hell ya!"... but the Left would say "No, we better take care of the people as they can't do it themselves."

Here in lies the problem. Your definition of "things that cannot be accomplished by individuals or states themselves" will be different than the Left's definition -- and the misreading of the General Welfare definition will continue.

That said, I completely agree with the direction you're heading. Issues should be addressed by the individuals, and if they can not provide a solution, then they should lean on their community support groups (i.e. friends, family and organizations), then city/county gov, then State Gov and finally (if no other option is available to solve the issue) the National Gov.

If that was followed, our national government would have far fewer things on it's plate (and could focus its efforts on the remaining issues more easily).

Great Post... and Great comment! :)