“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.”
For most of the history of the United States, this “general welfare clause” consisted of a debate between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Hamilton felt that Congress ought to be able to spend public money on anything, just in case that it was a beneficial investment in the health and vigor of the United States as a whole. Madison felt that money should only be spent on just those duties laid out in the Constitution over which the legislature was responsible.
Today, however, we hear the “general welfare clause” used to defend much more than just how Congress allocates it’s funds. Indeed, there are many Americans who appear to feel as though any law or regulation is justified, just in case it benefits the people generally. The terms “general welfare” and “the common good” beg the question, just who gets to determine what is or is not in our general welfare or common good?
The modern Democrat Party, heavily influenced by the philosophy of John Rawls, has landed upon a dangerously utilitarian perspective about governance, justice, and fairness. John Rawls, after failing to adequately comprehend Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, attempted to derive what he called “the difference principle”. The difference principle simply states that any attempt on the part of society to adjust for socio-economic inequalities, must begin by appealing to the needs of the disadvantaged.
Like Marx, Rawls imagines justice in terms of class struggle and economic condition. He failed to notice the neon red contradictions between his difference principle and his liberty principle, just as all utilitarians (John Stewart Mill included) miss the dangerous unintended consequences of calculating any manner of justice on the basis of outcome versus the basis of rational principle.
James Madison had the right thought on the meaning of what actions the general welfare justified in Congress, but the realities of governance simply overwhelmed the prohibitive strictness of Madison’s position in favor of Hamilton’s aggressive pragmatism.
Governments, and their operators, often compare themselves to one another. Governments compete in a global economy. Governments compete for global market share, even as they produce nothing and create not one penny of capital. Governments desire power and power is the ability to do work. Is there any military in the world with as much power as the United States military?
President Trump tweets at 3am and makes headlines in Tokyo, London, and Cairo that afternoon and evening. That’s power.
The downside of Hamilton’s position is this: we’re 21 Trillion dollars in debt. We’re 21 Trillion dollars in debt because we are aggressively pragmatic at the local, state, and federal levels. Pragmatism has produced an untold number of miracles for the American people, but these are miracles with price tags and a debt to be repaid.
So. The General Welfare. What is it?
The General Welfare is not what justifies Congress spending or not spending money. The General Welfare is also not utilitarian. It has nothing to do with unemployment statistics or socio-economic inequalities. The General Welfare has nothing to do with any equality but equality before the law.
Securing the General Welfare is the job of the legislature, but its purpose must be to preserve the United States Constitution. The General Welfare is preserved when we hold free and fair elections. The General Welfare is preserved when we are free from the influence of foreign powers. The General Welfare is preserved when all those powers not afforded to the federal government are retained by the States or The People. The General Welfare is preserved when we have the freedom to assemble and speak and protest, with the protection of a free press and freedom of religion, with our right to bare arms, with our right not to have soldiers or police housed in our homes, to be free from harassment by the officers of the state, with our rights to due process and fair trials before a jury of our peers, to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and to all the natural rights due to us by natural law including to the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In short, securing the general welfare is securing the United States Constitution and its amendments (even the awful ones, sadly, until we undo them). Our laws are all derived from our Constitution and it is the job of our legislature to ensure that our Constitution survives. When our legislature fails, it is the job of the Courts to protect the rights and liberties of the people, to protect their General Welfare.
During this season of primaries and conventions, when we Republicans demonstrate the very worst of our natures and prove to one another that there is no limit to how cruel or terrible we might become in order to win power – in other words, during this period of our greatest hypocrisy – it is important to remember that we do all share, as Republicans, a commitment to the General Welfare of the United States of America. It is important to remember that we reject utilitarianism and arbitrary justifications for law. It is important to remember that we support a long history of Conservative Tradition grounded in Natural Law and Natural Rights, Constitutional Republicanism, and a government which governs on the basis of principles, not upon the demands of loud and angry mobs.
We should elect Congressmen and Senators who will look after The General Welfare. We should elect Congressmen and Senators who will protect the US Constitution.