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Debating the General Welfare Clause

The General Welfare Clause

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…

The General Welfare Clause is one of the most distorted and misunderstood parts of the Constitution.  A lot of people today – including the Supreme Court – will tell you that it grants the federal government a separate power to provide for the “general welfare of the United States.”  In other words, that Congress has the authority to do whatever is in the best interests in the country.

It seems like common sense that no one who was trying to create a limited government would decide to give Congress this kind of broad, unrestricted power.  Despite that, this can be a tricky topic to debate.  To help you the next time you have to explain the obvious to someone, I’ve prepared a crash course for you on the General Welfare Clause.

Below is an explanation of the meaning of the General Welfare Clause, along with four reasons why is simply cannot be a separate grant of power – all broken down into individual arguments that you can use.

What does the General Welfare Clause mean?

– This clause has two parts – a power and a purpose.  The first half grants the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises”.  The second half gives the purpose that this power is to be used for – “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare.”

“Is this an independent, separate, substantive power, to provide for the general welfare of the United States?  No, sir.  They can lay and collect taxes, etc.  For what?  To pay the debts and provide for the general welfare.  Were this not the case, the following clause would be absurd.  It would have been treason against common language.”

Edmund Randolph, June 15, 1788

– The General Welfare Clause is actually a restriction on Congress rather than a grant of broader power.  It is a clarification that the power to lay taxes, etc is to be used for the general welfare (the good of the whole country) rather than the specific welfare (a certain state, region, group, etc.).

– In other situations in life, the meaning of a clause like this would be obvious.  For example, imagine that parent leaves a note for his teenage son that reads:

“You have permission to use the car keys and the $20 that are laying on the table, go to the football game and have a good time. ”

It’s pretty clear that the son is being given permission to use the keys and the money for the purpose of going to the football game.  No one in their right mind would argue that “have a good time” is a separate grant of permission for the boy to do whatever he thought would be fun.  But the way that the General Welfare Clause is currently interpreted would be like the son in this example going to an all night drinking party and then claiming, “But you said I had permission to have a good time!”

Why grant specific powers if there is a grant of “general” power?

The Founders put a lot of time and effort into deciding exactly which powers would be granted to the new federal government.  It makes absolutely no sense to waste all that time on specifics if they were just going to turn around and grant the government the virtually unlimited power to provide for the general welfare.

James Madison made the same point:

“But may it not be asked with infinitely more propriety, and without the possibility of a satisfactory answer, why, if the terms were meant to embrace not only all the powers particularly expressed, but the indefinite power which has been claimed under them, the intention was not so declared? why, on that supposition, so much critical labour was employed in enumerating the particular powers, and in defining and limiting their extent?”

James Madison, Nov. 27, 1830

If it is a separate power this clause creates unlimited government power

– Creating a limited federal government was one of the central purposes for writing the Constitution.  But granting the authority to provide for the general welfare would have resulted in a government of unlimited power.

We can now see for ourselves that this is true.  The Supreme Court has decided that this clause does grant the power to provide for the general welfare – because of that most of our public officials believe that the General Welfare Clause justifies anything they want to do.  Can you think of one area of your life that current members of Congress don’t feel is their business?

“If the clause, “to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States,” is construed to be an independent and substantive grant of power, it not only renders wholly unimportant and unnecessary the subsequent enumeration of specific powers; but it plainly extends far beyond them, and it creates a general authority in congress to pass all laws, which they may deem for the common defence or general welfare.  Under such circumstances, the constitution would practically create an unlimited national government.”

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution

– Can you think of a law that couldn’t be justified under a power to whatever is in the best interests of the country?

“[F]or what is the case that would not be embraced by a general power to raise money, a power to provide for the general welfare, and a power to pass all laws necessary and proper to carry these powers into execution […] Can less be said, with the evidence before us furnished by the journal of the Convention itself, than that it is impossible that such a Constitution as the latter would have been recommended to the States by all the members of that body whose names were subscribed to the instrument?”

James Madison, Nov. 27, 1830

– If the intent of the Founders was to create a limited federal government, then granting a power to provide for the general welfare wouldn’t have just been a mistake – it would have completely defeated the purpose of writing a Constitution in the first place.  They were far to intelligent to do something nonsensical like this.

As a separate grant of power this clause would be inconsistent with the rest of the Constitution

– The 10th Amendment states that:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution […] are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

If the General Welfare Clause is interpreted the way it is today and means that the federal government has the power to do what’s in the best interests of the country, this amendment makes no sense.  Apparently – based on that interpretation – four years after the Constitution was written the Founders felt the need to pass an amendment to make sure everyone knows that the states have the power to do everything that’s not in the general welfare of the country.  So… the states have the authority to do whatever is bad for the country.  (On second thought, it may explain a lot about California and Illinois…)

– Nowhere else in life do we take one phrase out of over 7,000 words and assume it has a meaning that completely contradicts the rest of the document.  The entire Constitution was written to carefully limit the power and scope of the government.  So it is completely illogical to interpret the General Welfare Clause as granting the authority to do whatever is in the best interests of the country.

“On the other hand, construing this clause in connexion with, and as a part of the preceding clause, giving the power to lay taxes, it becomes sensible and operative.  It becomes a qualification of that clause, and limits the taxing power to objects for the common defence or general welfare.  It then contains no grant of any power whatsoever; but it is a mere expression of the ends and purposes to be effected by the preceding power of taxation.”

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution

None of the Founders objected to this clause

– The authority to provide for the general welfare would have been a massive grant of power to the federal government.  Yet somehow, none of the Founders objected to the General Welfare Clause during the Constitutional Convention:

“That the terms in question were not suspected in the Convention which formed the Constitution of any such meaning as has been constructively applied to them, may be pronounced with entire confidence; for it exceeds the possibility of belief, that the known advocates in the Convention for a jealous grant and cautious definition of Federal powers should have silently permitted the introduction of words or phrases in a sense rendering fruitless the restrictions and definitions elaborated by them.”

James Madison, Nov. 27, 1830

– The states – many of which were concerned about being overrun by the power of the new federal government – didn’t object either.  Of all the 189 amendments that were suggested to be a part of the new Bill of Rights, none of them mentioned the General Welfare Clause:

“Here are a majority of the States proposing amendments, in one instance thirty-three by a single State; all of them intended to circumscribe the powers granted to the General Government, by explanations, restrictions, or prohibitions, without including a single proposition from a single State referring to the terms common defence and general welfare; which, if understood to convey the asserted power, could not have failed to be the power most strenuously aimed at, because evidently more alarming in its range than all the powers objected to put together; and that the terms should have passed altogether unnoticed by the many eyes which saw the danger in terms and phrases employed in some of the most minute and limited of the enumerated powers, must be regarded as a demonstration that it was taken for granted that the terms were harmless, because explained and limited, as in the “Articles of Confederation,” by the enumerated powers which followed them.”

James Madison, Nov. 27, 1830

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One Comment

  1. The role of the government is to see to it that a environment of freedom is not only provided, but protected. But to what extent would they need to do that? All they would need to do is for you to take a look at your own home life. Don’t you do the same thing that the government would be doing for us? You establish an environment where all the things that a free person would need in order to do anything a free person would want to do. In your home you provide food for everyone, that you buy so that your kids won’t be so much concerned about being hungry that they can’t think about being creative. It’s hard to create when you’re hungry. You provide a home that is comfortable for everyone so that if you want to do something you don’t have a henderance in doing that thing because you are freezing or burning up from being so hot you can’t think about anything else. There aren’t big holes in the roof where the rain is pouring into the kids room and they can’t do their big poster board project because the ceiling is leaking and the poster board is wet.

    The home is like the whole physical country and people were allowed to be free enough to build everything that was needed in order for anyone to be able to do whatever they had the idea to do. The job of the government is to make sure some invaders don’t come in and start burning down our cities which if that happened someone would not be able to start his own business because the building he needs to start that business in is on fire and he’s being shot at by invaders. See? The job of the government is to protect the environment that is created by the people in order that everyone has a fair chance to do whatever they want. If someone refuses to let someone build a building because they are afraid it would allow to many trees to be cut down, they want to save the trees. Then the government should make sure the person can move to another town and start over there without having to worry about saving trees. The government could come in and make that person who didn’t want the trees cut down to allow the tree’s cut down, but it was found out that they owned the land where the trees were, and the other guy wanted to buy a piece of that land. The government shouldn’t have the right to prohibit someone from cutting down trees if they can buy the land, and neither does the government have the right to stop someone from creating a business by ourlawing cutting down any trees. See?

    The government must protect as much freedom to do whatever anyone wants to do as the Constitution allows, and that is protect everyone’s rights to do as they wish, but at the same time protect the rights of each individual from anyone who would violate the rights of people by doing whatever it was they want to do. Protect, not take away. Provide and promote an environment of prosperity that everyone can fairly access without concern of their rights being violated if they decided to access the opportunity to be prosperous.

  2. But how does the government do this protecting? It does it by staying out of the way of what the people create in order for them to be as prosperous as they are able. Just like your home, if the roof is leaking, you get up there and fix it. If you run low on food, you go out and buy somemore. If you neglect to pay the electric bill and your lights don’t work anymore then you can’t provide that safe and secure environment you are expected to provide. You don’t tell your kids that now in order for the lights to come back on they have to get a job and pay for their lights. This is undue hardship being placed on the people who want to be creative but now have to take some of that time and commit it to working to pay for something that is supposed to be provided at no cost, like freedom. You’re not supposed to have to pay to be free. Nor are you supposed to be charged by the government for whatever freedom you can afford to buy. You are supposed to get all the freedom you have been given by God, for free. And have that right protected by the government.

    See, the government does for us what we aren’t able to do for ourselves. Just like keeping the lights on in your home, it is not supposed to be the job of the kids to provide for themselves any light, food, air conditioning, or transportation they need to do what they need to be as free and creative as they are supposed to be. Otherwise if they have to provide for themselves then what do they need mom and dad for? And if they have to go down to the Mexican border and stop anyone coming across who isn’t supposed to be doing that, then why should we pay more and more for the same protection if we’re not getting what we’re paying for? We’ll just do it ourselves.
    But the government is stopping us from going down there and stop Mexican’s with whatever means we have available and do it ourselves.

    So now the government has become a henderance to our freedom by 1) not providing a safe environment, and 2) stopping us from providing it for ourselves. So the government has become a stumbling block to our right to being free and safe. What good are they? They need to be gotten rid of so that we can make other arrangements with someone else or something else so that we can stop having to worry about illegals for instance, costing us billions of dollars a month in having to take care of all of them when we’re not supposed to have to do that. See, the government is being negligent in their duties, and have changed the definition of what it is they are supposed to do according to our law. The government has changed the laws so as to give them power they’re not supposed to have. We need to take that power away from them and return it to what the Constitution says is supposed to provide.

  3. It should not cost us anymore to stop a illegal alien from crossing the border than it did fifty years ago. Unless the technical proponent that is used to stop illegals is so much more significant and costly, even then the result of using it makes the assurity of protecting us more and for a longer time span that nothing else could come close to providing that level of security, would the cost be justified. But if it’s just doing the same thing as having a soldier down there with a rifle and the authority to make arrests, and isn’t doing anything more than that, then it’s nothing more than a glorified guard with fancier bells and whistles, and that’s what’s being paid for? The government needs to be made to prove that it is doing something that is more significant than the soldier with a rifle couldn’d do at a significant reduction in cost before we cough up the extra taxes it will take to pay for installing such a system. I don’t think the government is providing us with any more protection of our rights to being free, it’s not providing any more freedom than we are entitled, nor is it doing it at no cost to us as it shouldn’t cost a thing to just get out of the way, and do what it’s supposed to do without changing the words of our Constitution so the government can get away with taxing us where there should be no tax at all.

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