Friday, October 30, 2009

General Welfare

I recently read a post somewhere from some left-leaning-loon who was trying to make a case for congressional mandated health care. She started out citing the ‘fact’ that the Constitution’s goal wasn’t to limit government power (she must have attended a public school in the last few years), which I won’t even waste breath on trying to explain the sheer lunacy of this belief, but whom also tried to make the case that because the Constitution refers to providing for the ‘general welfare,’ this is somehow justification for government controlled health care. A Constitutional scholar she isn’t.

There are only two times the term ‘general welfare’ is used in the Constitution, in the Preamble and in Article 1, Section 8. The Preamble to the Constitution states:

"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 states:

“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;”

First, the Preamble of the Constitution establishes no powers or rights. It merely states the purpose of the Constitution. No further development of what ‘general welfare’ means can be made based on the mention of it in the Preamble. A preamble is nothing more than a summary of, or introduction to, what is to follow. If the idea is not in the context of the Articles, then it is not in the Preamble. The meaning in the Preamble must be defined by what is in the context of the Articles, not the other way around.

Second, what did the word ‘welfare’ mean in the age of the Founding Fathers?

It should be obvious words can change over time. In order to more accurately assess the meaning of the word ‘welfare’, with respect to its use in the Constitution, we can consult a source from that period. In the 1828 edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, the word ‘welfare’ was defined 40 years after it was written in the Constitution:

“1.Exemption from misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil; the enjoyment of health and the common blessings of life; prosperity; happiness; applied to persons.”

“2.Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applies to states.”

A clear distinction is made with respect to welfare as applied to persons and states. In the Constitution the word ‘welfare’ is used in the context of states and not persons. The "welfare of the United States" is not congruous with the welfare of individuals, people, or citizens.

The welfare concerned the whole of the Union at the federal level, the matter of binding the states together for mutual benefit, the health of the arrangement of the separated powers, the federalist structure, not the well-being of groups or individuals. The strongest reading would be that the benefit of this ‘general welfare’ had to be a benefit for all rather than some people, without it being a direct benefit to every individual.

In short, the clause, called the ‘General Welfare Clause’ or the ‘Spending Power Clause,’ does not grant Congress the power to legislate for the general welfare of the country’s individual citizens; that is a power reserved to the states through the Tenth Amendment. Rather, it merely allows Congress to spend federal money for the general welfare of the nation. The principle underlying this distinction—the limitation of federal power—was one of the reasons for the Constitution in the first place.

As one of our Founding Fathers, speaking on this very subject, put it so eloquently, “Words meant by the instrument to be subsidiary only to the execution of limited powers ought not to be construed as themselves to give unlimited powers, nor a part to be so taken as to destroy the whole residue of that instrument." --Thomas Jefferson


  1. Maybe this is what President Obama meant when he said the Constitution was flawed. Maybe it should be ammended.

  2. You mean like socialist dictators do when they plan on limiting personal freedom and grow the power of government over the people? Let's see, should I agree with Obama or Jefferson. Gee, that’s a tough decision- but I think I'm gonna stick with my old pal Thomas on this one.



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