…to Promote the General Welfare

There is nothing radical about Government acting for the Public Good

The fifth stated purpose of Government of the United States as listed by the framers of the Constitution is ”to Promote the General Welfare”.

There is much debate over the meaning and scope of this clause. It is ambiguous, and frustratingly ”open-ended”. The historic debate has centered on whether or not its inclusion here in the Preamble and in Article I, Section 8 is declaratory of any specific desired outcome. Providing a common defense, for example, is much easier to define and quantify, than to promote something as seemingly vague as the General Welfare. The conservative view has been that this phrase is simply re-stating the power of Government to enact Means for general purposes, by way of laying and collecting tax revenues, and that it isn’t about any socially advantageous Ends.

James Madison, in several of the Federalist papers, and in arguments before the Virginia Legislature seeking to secure their ratification of the Constitution, argued for the more limited view of the phrase. He wanted to allay any concerns that the inclusion of the phrase ”general Welfare” might imply unlimited Federal powers to enact whatever the government might deem to be ”good”.

Jefferson held virtually the same view. He argued that a broad interpretation would grant to Congress power so vast as to be ”indefinable”. He felt the foundational ground of the Constitution was its design to reserve to either the States or the People those powers not specifically enumerated in the document.

Jefferson’s position is what we today refer to as a ”strict constructionist” view. Its proponents prefer to limit the actions of government to specific, enumerated, finite powers. In practice however, Jefferson, Madison, and most all strict constructionists, act quite differently than they profess to believe.

It is interesting and instructive, that though this was undoubtedly Jefferson’s theoretical belief, when, as President, he was presented with the opportunity to more than double the land area of the United States by the Louisiana Purchase, he did so at the cost of $15 million tax-payer dollars in the ”general interest”. This was without a doubt the greatest real-estate bargain in history. The cost per square mile ending up being only around $18.

This 1803 purchase, made in negotiations with Napoleon, was rooted firmly in the gray area of the General Welfare clause. It also had some negative consequences. It angered the Federalists, notably Alexander Hamilton. It created a strain on relations with Great Britain and with Spain. It was undertaken without the prior knowledge or approval of Congress.  It posed problems of citizenship regarding the annexation of non-English speaking creole inhabitants of Louisiana and New Orleans. Jefferson annexed them and made them citizens anyway, because non-citizens could not be lawfully taxed, and he wanted the tax revenues. The total cost ended up closer to $2.6 billion dollars by the time all of the treaties with the Native American tribes then inhabiting the purchased lands were finalized. Notwithstanding, the overall impact of Jefferson’s decision was clearly in the public interest.

There is a large historical record revealing Jefferson’s anguish over whether such a treaty and purchase was even constitutional. He even went so far as the consideration of a Constitutional amendment to justify the acquisition. But, finally convinced by arguments from his supposedly strict-constructionist friend Madison, and other members of his cabinet, notably his Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin, he rationalized,

”…it is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.” 

Gallatin argued that since it was the prerogative of the President to negotiate treaties (though only the Congress had power to ratify them), that Jefferson was acting within his role as President and for the public welfare and protection. Jefferson was convinced.

I include this historical narrative in an essay on promotion of the General Welfare to illustrate that it is not a stretch to suppose that the Constitution, even for strict constructionists like Jefferson and Madison, is at all times flexible enough to allow the Government to act in the public good.

While it is agreed that we do not want a Government, ANY Government deciding and defining what ”good” is on all points, yet there are some cases that must be beyond dispute by reasonable persons with any degree of social conscience that manifestly promote the General Welfare.

It must also be said that the qualifying adjective General, referring to General Welfare is prohibitive of government promotion of specific or private interests, which are not General in application. 

Government promotion of benefits that are too narrow, too specialized in interest, too specific, and too limited in impact, is much more of a concern in today’s multi-million dollar political action committee climate, than the common conservative trope that government promoted welfare is too general and broad in effect. We would do well as a People to support those politicians who advocate for campaign finance reforms, the elimination of corporate subsidies, term limits for Senators and Congresspersons, and anti-corruption measures in general.

The Louisiana Purchase presented an opportunity for Jefferson as the Chief Executive to act in what he believed would be the public good. He was correct. At other times in the nation’s history, Presidents and Congress have needed to respond to emergencies and crises. These instances, whether opportunities or emergencies, have been the immediate context for government actions to be taken in promotion of the General Welfare. Thankfully, the Constitution has proven flexible enough to allow for advancement of actions designed to promote public well-being, whether in response to opportunity or emergency.

Among these are many actions undertaken by Lincoln during the Civil War, many provisions of Teddy Roosevelt, including the Panama Canal funding and treaty, as well as the creation of the National Parks system, and other economic provisions of his ”Square Deal”. Promotion of the General Welfare led FDR to enact a ”New Deal” to enable Americans crushed by the Great Depression to survive, find employment, and be prepared for an economic recovery. Add to these LBJ’s ”Great Society” accomplishments, Obama’s financial crisis bailouts, and current efforts spanning two administrations to promote the general welfare in the face of the COVID-19 crisis as further examples of the Federal Government acting in promotion of the General Welfare of the all the People of the country. This is normal, not radical. 

The commonly accepted definition of the verb promote is this: 

  1. To further the progress of (something, especially a cause, venture, or aim); support or actively encourage.

There can be no doubt that under this head, and by this definition, the Executive branch has nearly quadrupled from four cabinet positions under the first President, George Washington, to 15 cabinet level Departments in our day. Washington’s cabinet consisted of Secretaries of State, Treasury, War, and an Attorney General. 

To these have been added Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense (no longer a Secretary of War), Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice (wherein the Attorney General presides), Labor, State (Wherein the Secretary of State presides), Transportation, Treasury, and Veteran’s Affairs.

One can see we are quite far from any validity to the ”strict constructionism” argument. None of these Departments was enumerated by the framers. Yet, they created a Constitution outlining a government having the legal framework to achieve the purpose for which it was created. What government would be worth having that had the power to tax only, but not the power to determine the appropriations of those tax monies in promotion of the public good? 

We are in the midst of a current struggle with a global pandemic that has killed half a million fellow Americans. Article 1, Section 8 specifically authorizes the Federal government to fund scientific advancement. Thankfully, this is playing out in our day in the creation of vaccines and the funding of their dissemination which we all hope will end this national nightmare. Can anyone argue that this use of tax revenues is not in the promotion of the General Welfare?

It is my belief that this particular scourge shows us something that touches on all of the tenets of the Preamble. It shows us how inter-connected we are with regard to our own personal health, our economic well-being, our defensive vulnerabilities, and the way stresses of a health-care crisis have revealed racial and financial inequities still in existence in our society.

If this was a conventional war, we would be in the position of creating an army, a navy, an air force, drafting and training soldiers and sailors and pilots, building forts and ports and dockyards, and manufacturing tanks and ships and planes, all while under attack from an enemy already equipped and deployed. If this was a conventional war, we’d be hopelessly behind from our lack of preparedness and our lack of a centralized, fully mobilized national strategy utilizing unified tactics in purpose and resolve.

The framers, when considering the costs of providing for a common defense, argued that the expenditures to prepare, provide, and maintain an adequate military would be far cheaper than the costs of fighting an actual war, especially one that might decimate the Homeland. They were correct then, and their logic is applicable to this current crisis. That logic is what motivates bi-partisan cooperation to fund the Nation’s defensive posture. The same logic needs to be brought to bear for the nation’s healthcare vulnerabilities. 

Can anyone living through this crisis possibly believe that your neighbor’s, your co-worker’s health doesn’t affect you? Do you want your family’s health and even their lives jeopardized because the waitress at the restaurant where you like to eat breakfast cannot afford healthcare and cannot afford to miss work so she came to serve your family while carrying a potentially deadly virus?

I believe that the General Welfare now demands a public healthcare system that is funded by tax revenues. Such a public system will reduce waste, reduce administrative costs, streamline treatment options, etc. that will be far more efficient in advancing the health care needs of the Nation. It is time for the purpose of health care to be caring for health and not generating profits. This is clearly, demonstrably in the public interest.

This pandemic, and our national failure to respond adequately will end up costing well over half a million Americans lives. We won’t know for a decade what the final tally will be to the financial impact. Many small businesses are shuttered for good. More Americans have slipped into poverty, facing eviction, shortages of food, and are without money for utilities, than at any time since the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. 

How is it not less expensive to create a healthcare infrastructure that makes Health and not profits the top priority, than it is to muddle through a catastrophe like the one we are currently mired in, paying trillions as we go? Would such a system not fall exactly under the purpose envisioned by the framers of our government to promote the General Welfare?

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