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Oct 09, 2007


Stephen Downes

A program that helps everybody in the country live longer by preventing the spread of a dread disease is certainly something that promotes the general welfare.

But it is a program of selective innoculation and treatment, specifically, of people who may carry the disease or who have the disease. Therefore directed toward a specific few.

You serve the whole population by fighting SARS, but you can only fight SARS by attending to the sick people, not all the people.

Many programs work this way.

Roads are made saer by removing decrepit cars from the highway, but this measure attaches only to decrepit cars, not all cars (because it wouldn't even make sense to remove all cars from the highway).

Crime is reduced - a benefit enjoyed by all of society - by keeping poor people from starving, but this is a measure that postulates support only for poor people.

The entire city is protected by a floodway, but the floodway is only dug in a specific location, not in the entire city.

This suggests to me that the 'two interpretations' of the phrase are in fact a straw man. There are not two interpretations; the needs of the many are often served by addressing the needs of the few.

Stephen Downes

p.s. Nice tux. :)

Graham Glass

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your comment - it's great to hear from you again!

I agree that many of the things that you list benefit a lot of people.

However, the founders recognized that this is a slippery slope, and that if left to their own devices, the federal government would continue to come up with more and more things that come under the heading of "general welfare".

So they enumerated the basics such as national defense, and left the rest to the states.

A state was free to enact whatever programs it saw fit and to raise taxes for such purposes. In addition, states could continue to coordinate on matters of shared importance (such as the spread of diseases) but these would not be funded by the federal government.

If a resident of a state strongly opposed their state's taxes, they were free to relocate to a different state. This allowed states to compete for citizens and experiment with various approaches to government. And as you know, I strongly believe that competition is good and one of the primary forces for innovation and efficiency.

Regardless of whether the founder's philosophy and vision for the US was good or bad is a different topic which I plan on writing about soon.

The purpose of this current series is to show that the founders wrote the Constitution with a clear and definite vision for the US, and that this vision has been subverted over the years for the reasons that the founders predicted.


Tim Farage


Modesty aside, I know more about the Constitution than 99% of Americans, and I've been telling everyone who wants to listen how Congress and the Supreme Court have been severely subverting it for decades now.

Nevertheless, reading this blog about the misuse of the 'General Welfare' clause caused me to be so incensed that I am requesting that you subsidize my Valium prescription.

So here's a compliment: your blog is the best written, most cogent argument that I've ever read for proving that the Constitution meant to strictly limit the powers of the federal government. The quotes from Madison alone are incredible. Any reasonable person who reads this must be convinced that the federal government has vastly exceeded its Constitutional authority.

We can argue about what powers we'd like the federal government to have, but what is incontrovertible is this: if we want the federal government to do 'X', check the Constitution to see if 'X' is one of the enumerated powers. If it isn't, the only legitimate thing to do is to amend the Constitution to grant that power.


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