Constitutional Economics 101:
General Welfare or Enumerated Powers?
By Judd W. Patton
We, the American people, have great reverence for the U.S. Constitution, but according to surveys, we know tragically little about this awesome document. Many of us are freedumb, according to my friend, poet Nino D’Agosta.
Freedumb people, Nino says, neither understand freedom nor respect the original intent of the founding fathers, who, in the Preamble to the Constitution, ordained and established a government to “promote the general Welfare,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
During the four-month Constitutional Convention of 1787, they hammered out a document to enumerate the role of government. They set the bar high. “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the Hand of God,” George Washington said at the time.
A Clear Choice
In the year 2000, we Americans have a clear choice. We can restore the original precepts and value system, which formed the moral underpinnings of our Nation—as expressed in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, i.e., “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” or we can continue down the road to omnipotent government.
How did the founders define the role for the Federal government? Was the Constitution a pliable “living document,” subject to constant reinterpretation by elected leaders and the courts, or would the enumerated and specific powers of government be changeable only through a cumbersome Amendment process? Clearly, it was the latter.
What is Liberty?
Our Founders understood that liberty consists of economic freedom, i.e., a free-market economy, which in turn is fundamentally dependent on political and moral freedoms. In short, we will only remain a free society as long as Constitutional government principles and Godly precepts are alive in our hearts and minds. Thus, economic freedom can only flourish to the extent that tyrannical government is limited and solid values are maintained.
Our Constitution was intended to provide political freedom by strictly limiting and specifying the powers of government. “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution,” said Thomas Jefferson.
The principle of enumerated powers was to be our main defense from dictatorship. Yet, the enumerated powers of Constitutional government alone are insufficient to attain and maintain liberty. Lord Acton, renowned English historian, captured this essential concept of moral freedom when he said that, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” John Adams, our second President, said it even more plainly: “Our Constitution was only made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“Chains” of the Constitution
Our Founders enumerated and delegated about 20 specific powers to Congress as listed in Article I, Section 8. These clearly defined political freedom by articulating the chains on the Federal government.
Congress has the power to: 1. Lay and collect taxes in order to pay the debts and provide for the “common Defense” and “general Welfare” of the nation, 2. Borrow money on the credit of the United States, 3. Regulate commerce, 4. Establish rules for citizenship, 5. Establish bankruptcy laws, 6. Coin and regulate the value of money, 7. Standardize weights and measures, 8. Punish counterfeiting of U.S. securities and coins, 9. Establish post offices and post roads, 10. Pass copyright and patent laws, 11. Establish federal courts, 12. Punish crimes on the high seas, 13. Declare war, 14. Raise and finance the armed forces, 15. Establish rules for organizing, arming and disciplining the armed forces, 16. Call up state militias to execute the laws of the nation, suppress insurrections and repel invasions, 17. Administer the seat of government, 18. Administer federal lands, and 19. Make all laws that shall be necessary and proper for execution of the foregoing powers (so-called implied powers).
Much of what our government does today is unconstitutional! Congress has no Constitutionally derived power to fund education, establish retirement programs, nationalize health care, or redistribute income among Americans through welfare, food stamps or farm subsidies.
Unfortunately, substantial numbers of Americans have become dependent on such programs, and more are being proposed every day. An appropriate response to adding more new programs, for example, a national health care system, would be: “That’s an interesting idea but there’s no point in debating it. There are no Constitutional grounds for such legislation. Read Article I, Section 8. You need to begin by first amending the Constitution.”
General Welfare Clause
The incredulous response to this might be: “But the “general welfare” clause in the Preamble permits the Congress to pass legislation for health care, student loans, child care, foreign aid, farm handouts, environmental regulation and so on.”
In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall said: “The federal government is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers… The principle, that it can exercise only the powers granted to it…is now universally admitted.” Maybe in Marshall’s day, but not now.
Today, many members of Congress and ordinary citizens view our Constitution as a “living document.” Its well-conceived rules (or powers) and limitations can be reinterpreted or ignored altogether in the pursuit of utopian legislation, all in the name of the “general welfare” of the nation.
How about a baseball game with “living rules?” To promote the general welfare of the game, the umpire arbitrarily declares that the losing team gets four outs per inning until they catch up! Such favoritism and “living rules” would surely destroy the game for lack of interest.
Likewise, the concept of our Constitution as a “living document”—that it means whatever those in power interpret it to mean—is contrary to the original intent of the Framers and renders our Constitution essentially meaningless. Advocates of this viewpoint should, as a matter of honesty, call for a new Constitutional Convention and offer the following proposal for Article I, Section 8: “Congress shall promote the General Welfare.” Period. In light of what has happened, it’s a shame the original founders wasted four months of their lives debating the powers of government.
The original intent of our Constitution was to chain, or limit, the power and role of government so as to promote liberty and facilitate prosperity (general welfare). After all, liberty, not well-intentioned politicians with special-interest legislation, is the true source of the general welfare! Without solid Constitutional constraints, the good intentions of those in power can lead to oppressive or dictatorial control (one definition of fascism) which chains the people rather than the government.
Our Founders gave us a Constitutional Republic, not fascism, or a “living document” or even a democracy. The Constitution clearly specifies certain powers and responsibilities to government. Only through the Amendment process can the Constitution be considered a “living document.”
Congress and the President are, according to Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution, “bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution…” and to “preserve, protect, and defend” it. Surely if they were living up to their oath, we would not have a National Debt in excess of $5,600,000,000,000 and an annual budget of $1,800,000,000,000.
What to do? Ultimately, “We, the people” need to contemplate the price, the value, and the vulnerability of our liberty. As active, engaged citizens, we should maintain the high standard Washington and other Framers set, being diligent, wise and honest, and leaving the rest in God’s hands. In that vein, we should pray for our leaders (I Timothy 2:2).
In short, we must remove our freedumbness!
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