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You Say You'll Change the Constitution
Allen Bristow Misinterpreting the General Welfare Clause
November 2004

Upon reaffirming his oath of office in January, George Bush will not “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” nor will he “to the best of [his] ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To be fair, his opponent would not have done so, either.

Ever since the New Deal, the entire United States government has blindly accepted as its role the enforcement of the nation’s “general Welfare”, however nebulously defined. Medicaid, Social Security, farm subsidies, and their ilk represent governmental attempts to stave off social injustice with valiant strokes of the presidential pen. Despite the noble intent of these measures, intent does not confer constitutionality.

Article I, Section 8 states, “The Congress shall have power…[t]o 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.” Originally, the founders considered the clause to be limited by the powers as enumerated immediately afterwards in the document. While Section 8 specifies, for example, the power to combat piracy and establish post offices, in no place does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to provide for such things as the compensation of citizens or aliens who do not pay taxes, or for mandatory saving plans. James Madison, warning against such abuses, noted in an 1831 letter to James Robertson, “To take [the clause] in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character … not contemplated by its creators.”As a primary framer of the Constitution, Madison should be trusted.

Officials and citizens have justified Medicaid, Social Security, and farm subsidies with the general welfare clause just as Franklin Roosevelt rationalized the FDIC, NLRB, and the rest of the New Deal with his wellintentioned concern for Americans’ comfort. Immediately after the general welfare clause, the Framers qualified the extent of the power granted with a series of 17 specific cases of governmental authority, and no interpretation suffices to demonstrate that congressional jurisdiction in pursuit of the general welfare extends beyond coining money, granting copyrights, and other expressly permitted powers.

Among the excessive initiatives that have been justified as part and parcel of the general welfare clause, the Medicaid program allows those too poor to pay for their own health care to receive government funds toward specific medical treatments. Promoting good health is admirable, and those who agree ought to help those in need. The Constitution, however, makes no provision for a government program to promote the nation’s financial or physical health. Nor does it allow for subsidizing the health care industry, which is exactly what the government does by paying the cost of care, despite the detriment this causes to the open market.

Social Security demonstrates a similar lack of concern for constitutional authority. Retirement plans preserve the financial solvency of retired people, and Social Security consists of nothing more than a mandatory retirement plan. Though our citizens should be encouraged to save, nowhere does the Constitution permit the government to enforce a national standard of responsibility.

Similarly, farm subsidies protect farmers from the vicissitudes of international trade and ensure that farmers grow fewer crops than would be produced in a free market, in order to keep prices high. Not only is this practice nowhere expressly permitted by the Constitution, it does not provide equal protection to citizens. Instead, it preserves the income of superfluous farmers at the expense of the consumers.

Individual citizens should support the goals of these and many other programs as just and moral actions. They do contribute to the general welfare of the country, but to implement them as federal policy would require a constitutional amendment. To attempt to run the country without constitutional restraint is to follow the example of the Soviet Union, which had one of the strictest and most rights-based Constitutions ever formulated. This mattered little in practical terms; gulags flourished quite well despite the document’s strict moral mandates.

Policymakers must either interpret the basis for our government as it was written or radically alter its precepts. It is impossible to preserve a thoroughly limited government and to live in a nanny state. We must choose one or the other, but execute either choice as the Constitution requires.

Allen Bristow is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.


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