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The Correct Interpretation of the "Welfare Clause":

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“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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”—Article I, Section 8, 1st Clause of the US Constitution

This will cover my interpretation of the “general welfare” or the “power to tax” clause in detail.

If I may, I’m going to focus the pertinent part of the clause for this discussion: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, to... provide for the… general Welfare of the United States…”

This clause only grants one power, which is to lay and collect taxes. The “to” after “taxes” can be changed to “in order to” or “for the purpose of”. So it may read as “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, [for the purpose of]... provid[ing] for the… general Welfare of the United States”. The significance of this premise is its consequences. That means regardless of what follows the second “to”, the only power congress can derive is to collect taxes because a purpose =/= a power; therefore, It doesn’t grant the power to spend, only a limited ability to tax for enumerated powers.

Taking a closer look at “general welfare” one may wonder if that means any welfare they can rationalize generally. That would mean they can collect taxes for any reason they can rationalize for the general welfare, which contradicts the limiting function of the Constitution. If taxing is the only power Congress can derive from this clause, then why would they collect taxes for things they cannot spend money on or have no power to act on?

So in this view, the first clause only grants the power to collect taxes to cover the cost of acting on enumerated powers—because that’s all the government can act on—and only if those powers are executed in the general welfare of the United States (not special interest welfare) can Congress tax and fund that act.

An alternative perspective is to take the clause out of context and view it as a list within a list. So it could read: “The Congress shall have Power to... provide for the… general Welfare of the United States.” Forgetting the fact that the first two things listed after taxing [so debt and defense] are powers enumerated elsewhere and that creates a redundancy of words; and forgetting the fact that redundancy clearly goes against the framers’ attempts to make the Constitution as short as possible while getting the job done; it still doesn’t make sense.

If that where to correct interpretation, that would mean that Congress can rationalize any power or act they please as long as they can rationalize it for the general welfare of the nation. That also means they can tax for any reason they please, since “general welfare” no longer applies as a limitation on the power to collect taxes. This undermines the very purpose of the Constitution, which was to limit the government to specifically enumerated powers. They might as well reword the whole Constitution to just give them the power to do whatever is for the general welfare of the United States; and that would eliminate a great amount of redundancy.

The second interpretation cannot possibly be correct because they wanted to keep the government within a limited box for fear of it growing out of control, like every other government in history. The Constitution was its framers' best attempt to stop a historical trend by forcing our government to submit to a document which limits its activity.

Of the two views I gave, it’s either or, not both. Or more accurately stated, there is only one correct meaning assigned to that clause, and therefore, there can only be one correct interpretation. Some think that there is middle ground and that falls on the discretion of whoever is in office. If the clause cannot have two meanings at the same time, then you could imagine the even more ridiculous idea that its meaning could be half of one meaning and half of its antithesis. Both perspectives I gave are antithetical to one another and cannot be mixed without contradiction.

It is possible for both of my suggested interpretations to be incorrect [not likely], so if you disagree please give your reasons along with your interpretation. An English Major who specializes in Writing and Composition would add a lot of value to this discussion.


Quotes I found that support my argument:

"To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States, that is to say, 'to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.' For the laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union. In like manner, they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. To consider the latter phrase, not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please, which might be for the good of the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless.

"It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please." --Thomas Jefferson My link

"Our tenet ever was that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated, and that, as it was never meant that they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation of the purposes for which they may raise money. "-- Thomas Jefferson letter to Albert Gallatin, 1817

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions. It is to be remarked that the phrase out of which this doctrine is elaborated is copied from the old Articles of Confederation, where it was always understood as nothing more than a general caption to the specified powers."—James Madison’s letter written to Edmund Pendleton on January 21, 1792;

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part; be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the 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.”—James Madison in Federalist Essay No. 45

Edited by m082844
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The Constitution is laid out quite clearly. It doesn't require a historian or some other special knowledge to understand. It is there plain as day for any man with a basic level of reading comprehension to understand, and that was on purpose, regardless of what Constitutional revisionists would lead you to believe:


The general welfare and the other aforementioned powers of Congress are clearly defined right below that statement in what you would call the enumerated powers. As such, nothing can be done with the excuse that it is for the purpose of the "general welfare" if it is not one of these specifically listed powers. This was done to avoid abuse and to restrain government power, just as is the purpose of the Constitution in general.

"The enumerated powers are a list of items found in Article I, section 8 of the US Constitution that set forth the authoritative capacity of the United States Congress.[1] In summary, Congress may exercise the powers to which it is granted by the Constitution, and subject to explicit restrictions in the Bill of Rights and other protections found in the Constitutional text. The 10th Amendment states that all prerogatives not vested in the federal government nor prohibited of the states are reserved to the states and to the people, which means that the only prerogatives of the Congress (as well as the Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch) are limited to those explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Historically these powers have often been expanded to include other matters through broad interpretation of the enumerated powers by Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States.[2"


Notice how it says nothing about health care or social security, which otherwise would have had to be amended into the Constitution if it were not for the loose interpretations. That is one of several reasons why the amendment process is quite difficult to successfully complete and requires a large amount of agreement, along with the prerequisite that it may not violate the bill of rights or Constitution in the process.

Edited by CapitalistSwine
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Dood responses.

Directed at rebelconservative,

So do you think providing for the general welfare of the United States is a listed enumerated power as long as it is applied objectively (not at special interests)?

Not if you take the correct, strict constructionist view.

Liberals want to apply 20th century definitions to an 18th century text, in keeping with the monstrous idea of a 'living' (that is worthless) constitution.

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Not if you take the correct, strict constructionist view.

Liberals want to apply 20th century definitions to an 18th century text, in keeping with the monstrous idea of a 'living' (that is worthless) constitution.

I don't know of any other contract that can change terms by changing the meaning of words. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a contract?
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I don't know of any other contract that can change terms by changing the meaning of words. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a contract?

I don't know of any other contract that can change terms by changing the meaning of words. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a contract?

Probably the most well-known contemporary advocate of originalism is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He offers several arguments against the "Living Constitution" view:

1. The purpose of a Constitution is to bind us, not to be flexible. The Constitution offers its own way of being flexible and that is through the amendment process.

2. The "Living Constitution" has no guiding priciple upon which to guide its evolution.

3. The "Living Constitution" allows for judicial activism; effectively, legislating from the bench.

4. The "Living Constitution" poisons the apointment and confirmation of judges. If there is no fixed meaning in the Constitution, then the best thing partisan politicians can do is to get judges on the courts that agree with their political beliefs. Competence and character are no longer the main issues in judicial confirmation hearings.



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  • 10 months later...

The correct interpretation of the Welfare Clause is that it is completely immoral in principle and, as proven by the imminent bankruptcy of the U.S. government, completely unworkable in practice.

The system of taxation represents a form of coercion. Express permission by the founding documents of the United States to engage in it "legally" does not somehow magically alter its nature.

It doesn't matter which political party is elected; both are committed to the proposition that some coercion is unavoidable. In fact, that's why I don't foresee becoming a country that has done away with tax. Neither party comes across as willing to alter in that commitment, which is why I don't see how we can

Despite every civilization alleging that everyone has to be forced to chip in a "fair share" to pay for certain services, none has succeeded to a rational standard by doing so. When any branch of government has the right to initiate the use of force for any purpose whatsoever, the rights of the citizens are abridged and a distrust of law and disrespect for the rights of others is disseminated.

The basic law of a rational nation must be simple, really it should be one that even children can understand to facilitate the education of future generations and reduce criminal acts. :when no one has the right to initiate the use of force, fewer people find value in even trying to employ coercion to obtain values. It really is more productive and more satisfying to obtain values rationally. More people are able to achieve values by rational means, which increases the real wealth of vastly more individuals.

The law needs to be universal, to apply to everyone. People will quickly discover that finding ways to pay for the kind of self-protection that serves their lives meaningfully can only be discovered and implemented when people are free to decide what that protection looks like. Paying for the courts of law, the police and armed forces becomes something people do because they see the value - both in the immediate purchase (for instance peace of mind in buying policies of insurance to provide funds to defend oneself in court or buying a lottery ticket) to the long-term value (for instance of knowing one's weekly lottery ticket purchase is also helping to pay for local, provincial or federal self-defense units such as police, navy and so forth.)

Once people realize that when not even government for the purposes of self-defense needs to have the right to initiate the use of force, will they discover that individuals buying their own peace of mind will put funds into the kinds of self-defense that actually get the job done, so that it is not just done but seen to be done rationally objectively and morally.

Because, one cannot achieve the welfare of the general public through coercive mechanisms.

The truth is that without government interference on behalf of all of us collectively, each of us individually would have to deal with those issues individually.

The truth is: there is no substitute for being involved in your own life. Government cannot achieve the values on your behalf required for your individual existence because that can only be achieved by each of us, individually on our own behalf. The rational job of government is to provide defense of individual rights, thereby providing the environment in which individuals can pursue their own interests for the purpose of achieving their rational values: including their next meal, a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food to eat, medical care, education for all ages, entertainment, power and heating & cooling, transportation, roads and phones and computers and so on & so forth.

The job of government is to protect individuals' rights to engage by mutual consent in commerce that is mutually beneficial. In a rational society everyone has to obey the law, and that law is no one has the right to initiate force. When government does its job which is to uphold the law and is not permitted to itself disregard the law, then men will have created the only form of government that can work and will do more than avoid bankruptting the country: it will actually make the country's government rich while its people also grow rich too.

All that people have to do is come to terms with the notion of banning coercion and establishing a law that deserves to rule all our lives - that no one has the right to initiate the use of force.

I do know that for any country currently using the tax system, it would take a period of a few years to actually shut the system down as privatization becomes widespread in all those industries and professions into which government has inserted itself improperly. However, that road is never going to be travelled if people don't keep talking about it as the proper goal to be heading towards.

I think that this is a perfect thread in which to raise this issue, because this particular clause in the Constitution is the main flaw to be fixed and until it actually happens, it's worth repeating it again and again.

Edited by AllMenAreIslands
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Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States," amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction.

Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms "to raise money for the general welfare."

James Madison Federalist Papers #41

As I understand him in that paper, he argues that it is not and could not be the carte blanche that it has, in point of fact, become today since the powers of the federal government are so clearly enumerated in the constitution. The meaning of the phrase at the time would essentially, in current vernacular, be to provide for those things which affect all people generally. So things like a military, for example, would protect all people inside the border generally. The idea that the obvious meaning of the phrase could be so far contorted was considered impossible in its absurdity. At least by Madison.

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