Wednesday, March 9, 2011

General misunderstanding

Paul Abrams trotted out one of the favorite progressive arguments for virtually unlimited federal power in a March 9 Huffington Post article.

The good ole' "general welfare" clause.

Abrams' brings quite an academic pedigree to the party, Yale educated, summa cum laude, multiple advanced degrees, which goes to show an Ivy League education doesn't guarantee a student will actually graduate knowing anything.

OK, perhaps that's a bit harsh. He may be a fine lawyer and an excellent medical doctor, but a constitutional scholar - not so much.

Abrams' argument goes like this.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 grants the United States government the unqualified and unlimited power to raise and spend money, for example, to: provide healthcare for the elderly (or for everyone); provide old-age pension; build roads, bridges, train tracks, airports, electric grids, libraries, swimming pools, housing; educate our children, re-train the unemployed, provide pre-school and day care; fund public health projects; invest in and conduct basic research; provide subsidies for agriculture; save the auto industry; create internets; and, yes, Tea Party Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), even provide emergency aid from natural disasters, and so forth. All subsumed under the authority to spend for the general welfare.

This raises a couple of interesting questions.

First off, if the very first clause of Article 1 Sec. 8 grants unlimited and unqualified authority for the federal government to do any damn thing it wants, why did the framers bother to waste ink enumerating all of those other powers? I mean, they were handwriting the thing for goodness sake. Seems to me an economy of words would have definitely been in order.

Secondly, how in the world can you square Abrams' view of "general welfare" with James Madison's assertion in Federalist 45 that the powers granted to the federal government are "few and defined"?

Oh yeah, you can't.

And Madison didn't.

In fact, the "Father of the Constitution" actually addressed this very argument.

“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

You can look to the ratifying conventions for those proofs. In fact, the "anti-federalists" feared that people like Abrams would come along and make the very arguments he advances. The pro-constitutionalists assured them this wouldn't happen - that the government powers were in fact limited and defined.

Heck, even Alexander Hamilton, who was most hostile to the concept of limiting federal power, conceded as much.

“This specification of particulars [the 18 enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8] evidently excludes all pretension to a general legislative authority, because an affirmative grant of special powers would be absurd as well as useless if a general authority was intended.”

Thanks for answering that first question for me, Alex.

Abrams' runs into trouble because he doesn't understand what the framers meant by "general welfare" and "common defense". The first words of those two phrases hold the key. General and common. The phrase simply means that any tax collected must be collected to the benefit of the United States as a whole (and only for the purposes constitutionally enumerated), not for partial or sectional (ie. special) interests. You know, swimming pools, health care for the elderly, and internets. (I don't know what "internets" are. Ask Abrams.)

The power to pursue the things Abrams advocates lies with the states. As Madison put it:

The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.

Abrams goes on to discuss the "necessary and proper" clause. I think in light of the complete dismantling of his first point, we can leave that alone for the time being.


  1. Great summation of the progressives' misunderstanding of the Constitution.

    I've put this up at