Saturday, August 29, 2009

What is General Welfare?

General welfare is a term that is used more than once in the United States Constitution.

First, it is mentioned in the Preamble:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare.."

Next, it is mentioned in Article 1, Section 8:
"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 preamble itself does not institute any laws or lay down the rights of duties of any section of government. The preamble is merely an introduction if you will. It is just stating why the Constitution was being written.

Article 1, on the other hand, is the section of the Constitution that deals with the powers of our legislative body.
Section 8 is stating that Congress has the power to, among other things, provide for the defense and general welfare of the United States.

So what does "general welfare" mean?

I think the word welfare has come to mean different things to different people.

Today, when you mention the word 'welfare' the first thing that immediately comes to most people's minds is government assistance to the poor.

However, that is not what the Constitution is talking about. The Constitution was never intended to entitle people to financial assistance from the state. In fact, most of the framers of the Constitution were very distrusting of government and would have never proposed such a ridiculous idea.

If you want to know what type of general welfare the Constitution is talking about you have to go back and read what the term meant in 1787.

Not only that but you need to read the term in context with the rest of the paragraph. "Provide for the Common Defence and General Welfare of the United States..."

The term 'general welfare' in 1787 is a term that means (and should still mean if you ask me) general well-being. The terms common defense and general welfare go hand in hand. The framers of the Constitution are talking about Congress having the power to provide for the defense of the country and the safety of its citizens. Nothing more. Nothing less.

So the next time you hear someone tell you that everyone is entitled to certain things because the Constitution says they are, explain to them how wrong they really are.

This country was never meant to become a "welfare state" as the term is used these days.

It is up to Congress to establish laws that:
(a) protect our country from invasion
(b) protect our borders
(c) provide safety for our citizenry, and
(d) collects taxes to fund the aforementioned functions.

It is not, however, the duty of Congress to make sure that everyone in the country who thinks they are entitled to certain things has a decent place to live, or a decent place to work, or has enough money to support their family, or has adequate health care. It is not their job. Those types of things fall under the heading of what I call personal responsibility.

I believe, however, that it is well within the rights of Congress to establish laws that remove barriers that allow our citizens to obtain these things more easily, but it is not their job to hand a person a job, or a house, or a check, or give them free health care.

Okay, I am rambling a bit now, back to the topic at hand.

The term general welfare was not written with the intention of giving every citizen a handout.

It was written with the intention of providing for the safety of our nation's citizens. Pure and simple.


  1. Yes...yes and yes. I agree with your assessment.

  2. Do you believe the Constitution is the rule of law?
    Do you believe in the original intent of our founding fathers?
    Do you want to reform Congress? If your answer is yes, we have
    to work together to make this happen.

  3. Very interesting website you have there Foxwood.

    I just went over and checked it out and left a few comments.

  4. I have to admit that I have never heard anyone make the argument that the phrase “general welfare” in the Constitution refers to welfare programs for the poor.

    But since the topic was brought up in the post, do you think that we should do away with programs like Food Stamps or WIC? Don’t you think that we, collectively through the government, have a moral obligation to help those in need?

  5. I think that we as a people have a moral obligation to help those in need.

    I do not think that this moral obligation should be enacted through the federal government however.

    I have found myself more and more lately wanting our country to follow a very strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. So with that in mind, I do not think it is part of the federal government's original charter to provide these programs and honestly think that programs such as Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional.

    However, I personally, do not have a problem with the individual states providing these services as long as the systems are not corrupted and the people in charge of providing these services are very careful about who receives these services.

    Programs like food stamps and WIC are actually not programs that are federal programs if I understand how they work correctly. I am pretty sure that they are administered by the states themselves. I do think they might be subsidized by the federal government though. I might have to look into that a bit more.

    In any case, to answer the question again, I think WE (the people of the United States) do have a moral obligation to help the needy. I do not think the federal government has that moral obligation however.

  6. I believe it was Thomas Sowell who famously quipped that compassion is the art of buying votes with other people's money.

    Don’t you think that we, collectively through the government, have a moral obligation to help those in need?

    There are multiple problems here, Dave, not least of which is that there is not the slightest hint of any power given to--at least--federal government to do any such thing. The Constitution confines itself largely to the mechanisms of protecting man's rights and trusts to individual men to take care of one another.

    Another is that, though some may have intended only the best, the reality is that these problems have not eliminated poverty, or even really fought it; they have, instead, exacerbated it! Instead of lowering the number of poor people, the number of people in need, what has actually happened is that these programs have created powerful incentives to precisely the sorts of behavior that lead to poverty (Walter Williams' comments on this subject are instructive); the definition of poverty has been revised (not to mention predicated solely on income) so that people with homes, air conditioning, automobiles, and cell phones, in more than a few cases, actually qualify for poverty programs; and these programs serve as Democrats' principal means of buying votes, that is, Democrats have a powerful incentive for keeping people on the poverty rolls!

    They will never do a thing to actually end poverty. It would cost them everything.

    You might argue that it is possible to reform the programs; I would argue otherwise, that the history of this sort of thing throughout the world, and most recently on display here, demonstrates that they operate on fundamentally flawed assumptions.

    Overall, then, I conclude that there is no moral obligation to support programs that do not actually do anything but worsen the problems they purport to solve and provide powerful inducements to political corruption in the process.

    Excellent books that explain these things in considerably more detail are Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion and Charles Murray's Losing Ground. Well worth your time.

    I haven't forgotten about lions, zebras, atheists, and morality,either, Dave :) I'll try to get back to you on that one (briefly!) before I go to bed tonight.

  7. Otter said "I think that we as a people have a moral obligation to help those in need".

    Perfectly stated.
    This is the essence of the difference in the two parties.

    One believes in the power of the people to control the government and the other believes in the power of the government to control the people.

  8. Otter, The Founding Fathers could never even dream about a situation where the Central Government would even be able to provide assistance to those in need. In those days, there was no central bank with the power to print its own money. Today congress can pass laws such as Food Stamps, WIC, public assistance because the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury work together to sell our debt and print money.
    Indeed, there is no possible way that "general welfare" could possibly imply public assistance according to the Constitution. In my opinion, this is a STATE function, if not county/district and should be put up for a vote.