‘General welfare’ and post-Constitutional America
I recently had an exchange with a reader who took issue with an attribution that I had made in one of my op-eds. The direction of the interchange has led to the following related to the redistribution of wealth by the federal government.
Conservatives have won the battle of ideas. No rational person makes a first principle argument for big government and centralized planning. Every country who has tried top down socialism has failed. The Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and the poster child Venezuela, one of the richest counties in South America prior to Hugo Chavez’s implementation of socialism, have all collapsed under the weight of not enough wealth creation to support the social welfare burden. As Margaret Thatcher said, “Socialist governments do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.”
The fact is, every redistributive social welfare program at the federal level is unconstitutional. Had the Founders and Framers wanted the federal government to have the power to steal from one individual to enrich another, they would have included that as an enumerated power in Article I, Section 8. They did not.
As early as 1795 (Vanhorne’s Lessee v. Dorrance) the opinion of the Supreme Court stated in part, “(after quoting the several passages), “From these passages it is evident; that the right of acquiring…property, and having it protected, is one of the natural, inherent, and unalienable rights of man. …No man would become a member of a community, in which he could not enjoy the fruits of his honest labor and industry. The preservation of property then is a primary object of the social compact.”
Social Security and subsequently Medicare/Medicaid would most certainly have been found unconstitutional if Franklin Roosevelt had not trampled the separation of powers as designed by the Framers and threatened to pack the Supreme Court with progressive minded activist jurists. Up to that point, his New Deal socialist programs had been dropping like flies once reaching the purview of the court. The inevitability that Social Security would meet the same fate is what motivated FDR to take such a drastic and unconstitutional step. Once the precedent had been set, that the courts were going to forsake the Constitution under the threats of a despotic President, Pandora’s box had been opened.
If one would choose to use the “general welfare” clause, which has been vastly misrepresented, as a justification for federal redistributive schemes, such as Social Security, nice try.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, spoke to the intended meaning of the general welfare clause in an essay he wrote in 1792 titled “Property”. An excerpt from that paper is, “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort … nor is property secure under it [government], where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.” Again in 1793 he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.”
A small unobtrusive central government that included a separation of powers to insure it stayed that way was the objective of the constitutional convention. The federal government was not meant to be a service provider. They designed a central government that guaranteed freedom from coercion not freedom from want.
James Madison spoke to the authority of the federal government in the Federalist Paper #45: The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
The Framers wanted the states to be individual and unique experiments in government. They wanted the citizen to be able to vote with their feet and select the state that had the government that best fit their needs. Having a despotic federal government that imposed a one size fits all government on everyone defeated that purpose.
The Founders had just fought a war to escape a central government that was far away and oppressive. They believed the closer the government to the people the more accountable that government would be. Thus they would never had installed a system that was little better than the one from which they had just revolted. Social Security accounts for 24 percent of the federal budget, Medicare/Medicaid et al, another 26 percent. So using these two expenditures, at least half of what the federal government spends our tax dollars on is unconstitutional. And that doesn’t include the money spent on subsides, bailouts, grants and non-treaty related foreign aid.
So the words “general welfare” do not grant Congress the power to do whatever it pleases. The word “general” is the key. Simply put, any tax collected must be collected to benefit the citizenry as a whole, not a specific group. While promoting the general welfare may fall among the responsibilities of the federal government, it must do so within the scope of the specific powers delegated (enumerated). Taking property without just compensation to enrich the individual is not one of those powers.
While I am not purposing a cold turkey approach to pulling the Social Security Medicare plug on all those who are counting on them to aid in their retirement, it is time to begin the discussion of weaning further generations off such programs and returning to constitution government. At this point in time, that conversation is not even a fleeting thought in Washington.
Area resident Jack Loesch is a longtime teacher at the University of Akron whose columns appear periodically in the Salem News. Read his website at www.TorchnFork.info. He may be reached at: TorchNFork@frontier.com