For years I’ve run into people who appeal to the Constitution for justification of the welfare state. The theme of high taxes on the productive that should be redistributed to the “less fortunate” is based on a misreading of the “general welfare” clause found in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution:
“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;”
“General welfare” does not mean aid to some at the expense of others, as James Madison was quick to point out in Federalist 41. He answered his critics by having them read the phrase in its context. He noted that “Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars . . . .”1 The use of the semicolon after the “general welfare” clause proves it. In the entire list that follows the semicolon, there is nothing that even remotely resembles the social welfare programs promoted by today’s liberal thinking people. Following modern-day proponent’s of general welfare, the national government has unlimited authority to do anything it defines as being for the nation generally. This is impossible.
The modem concept of general welfare is most often defined in terms of wealth redistribution where some members of society (“the rich”) are taxed heavily in order to benefit the “welfare” of others (“the poor”).To the contrary, general welfare, according to the Constitution, means welfare that benefits everybody more or less equally. This can be clearly seen in providing “for the common Defense.” Taxes collected to defend the nation benefit everybody generally. Taxing some people so other people can have decent housing or an education or healthcare is not general welfare; it’s particular welfare and is not supported by the Constitution, common sense, or experience unless you’re a politician who’s trying to buy votes with other people’s money in the name of the Constitution.
- The Federalist No. 41: General View of the Powers Conferred by The Constitution, No. 41 (January 19, 1788). [↩]