The "General Welfare"

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dear Uncle Gus,

How can I best explain that "in order to form a more perfect union ... promote the general welfare" was not written to promote a welfare state? Talk to me Goose.



Dear Fer,

Following a definition of the word in the entry for "Welfare" on the glossary page at come the following inimitable words:

Welfare in today's context also means organized efforts on the part of public or private organizations to benefit the poor, or simply public assistance. This is not the meaning of the word as used in the Constitution.
A page about the Preamble there further elaborates on the phrase in question:
promote the general Welfare

This, and the next part of the Preamble, are the culmination of everything that came before it -- the whole point of having tranquility, justice, and defense was to promote the general welfare -- to allow every state and every citizen of those states to benefit from what the government could provide. The framers looked forward to the expansion of land holdings, industry, and investment, and they knew that a strong national government would be the beginning of that.
As you can see from there, and from any good general discussion of the General Welfare Clause, which appears later on in the Constitution, it is fairly straightforward to show historically that the Founding Fathers didn't exactly have today's welfare state in mind when they put that phrase and that clause into the Constitution. For example, Wikipedia quotes Thomas Jefferson on the matter as holding that the clause limits the purposes for which Congress can raise taxes. For advocates of laissez-faire, that illustrates a problem with the premise underlying your question, but we'll return to that later.

So the answer to your question is straightforward, but based on many discussions I have seen and heard, I don't think you would be satisfied if I were to leave it at that. I suspect that what you really are interested in doing is arguing that the welfare state violates individual rights and thus is not a proper purpose of government. You hope to use the Constitution to bolster your case, because its essential purpose is to set up a government that protects individual rights -- but you are running into problems caused by the fact that it has been "interpreted" over time by some Constitutional scholars to sometimes mean almost exactly the opposite of how it was intended. On top of that, parts of it are in fact at cross-purposes with its essential goal, most glaringly those parts pertaining to slavery before the Thirteenth Amendment. Even if you made an airtight case, based on the Constitution and what the Founders said about it, that none would have ever approved of the modern welfare state, the recipient of your argument could simply say, "Well, what about slavery?" As important as the Constitution is, it can't pinch-hit for philosophical principles, specifically when arguing for or against the propriety of something like the welfare state, taxation, or slavery.

Books can and have been written about such topics, but how might one best at least get someone to consider the idea that the welfare state is at cross-purposes with the proper role of the government, given the problems that leaning too heavily on the Constitution can cause? I think one can get most people to agree generally that our Founders were seeking to protect individual rights (it might help to enumerate a few: life, liberty, property), and go forward from that premise. From there, I might "follow the money," so to speak, to get at welfare through a line of questioning. If, for example, the other person concedes that the welfare state is expensive, point out the enormous amount of taxation it requires, and ask whose money that is. If the other person concedes that it's not the recipient's money, ask by what right someone can take it from its owner. Point out that when the government forcibly takes money for any purpose, it is acting no differently than the swindlers, thieves, and foreign invaders it is supposed to be protecting us from. If you can do something like that, you can get the other person to see for himself that the welfare state contradicts the proper purpose of the government, or at least get closer to seeing that. In fact, you can even bring up slavery as an example of something that was part of -- but contradicted the purpose of -- the Constitution and was, properly, amended out of it. (Depending on the conversation, you may need to since, as we noted earlier, Thomas Jefferson himself was okay with taxation, and the more glaring error can help you show the difficulty that presents.)

There are doubtless other approaches you could take, but I think you generally should focus on the essential goal the Founders had, rather than leaning too heavily on an imperfect and often grossly misinterpreted document for your case. (Also, you don't have to convince someone in a short conversation to be effective. Often, just getting someone to consider an idea he hadn't before is good progress.) That said, you may find legal philosopher Tara Smith's discussions of judicial interpretation helpful, especially if I have misunderstood your question, and you are more focused on interpreting the Constitution than I have guessed. In addition, since most people don't see a problem with taxation and can't imagine alternatives, I'd recommend (re-)reading and thinking about Ayn Rand's essay on, "Government Financing in a Free Society," in The Virtue of Selfishness.

I hope that helps. If you have any further questions or my readers have any further suggestions, I invite them in the comments.

-- CAV

If you'd like to ask a question, type it into the box labeled, "Ask Uncle Gus," at the upper right of this blog's main page, or at the top of the question-and-answer list hosted by FormSpring.


RE said...

It's difficult to explain a non-statist principle in soundbite form -- memetics is the stock-in-trade of the pull peddlers -- but I have approached that question in this way in the past:

Q: General welfare?
A: Exactly.
Q: So, welfare state is OK?
A: Of course not. Why would you think that?
Q: Because, "general welfare." And you just agreed.
A: You are enjoying the word "welfare" and forgetting the word "general."
Q: General. You know, for everyone who needs it.
A: More than that.
Q: Like what?
Q: So, welfare state?
A: No. Because not everyone benefits from a welfare state. Some people's rights are harmed by the welfare state.
Q: They can afford it.
A: Irrelevant. The point is, not "general."
Q: So what would be "general?"
A: A governmental service that EVERYONE benefits from, in its totality, no matter who they are or what they do.
Q: Like which ones?
A: Military, police, court system. The governmental services that protect individual rights. That is the proper purpose of government, and the proper manner of promoting the "general welfare" of the people.
Q: And what else?
A: And nothing else. Governmental programs that redistribute wealth are not to the general welfare. They are providing INDIVIDUAL welfare to some people, and violating the rights of others.
Q: But those people can afford it!
A: Irrelevant. The government must not violate their rights.
Q: What difference does it make if it does?
A: Because once you say it's OK for the government to violate another person's rights, it becomes OK for the government to violate YOUR rights.

The message doesn't always come across, but I've gotten a few people to do the "uncomfortable and thus thinking about this" face after being confronted with the concepts.

Gus Van Horn said...

I like that.

Thanks for taking the time to post it here.