The Meaningless Constitution

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Article 8, Section I, Clause I of the U.S. Constitution is known as the Taxing and Spending Clause:

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;

It’s this clause that our government most commonly abuses in defense of their special interest legislation and subsequent taxing and spending.

Supreme court associate justice Joseph Story (1812—1845) argued that the "Welfare Clause" gave congress the power to tax and spend as an independent power of the legislature; that is, the General Welfare Clause gives Congress power it might not derive anywhere else.

[T]he [General Welfare] clause confers a power separate and distinct from those later enumerated, is not restricted in meaning by the grant of them, and Congress consequently has a substantive power to tax and to appropriate, limited only by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States. … It results that the power of Congress to authorize expenditure of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by the direct grants of legislative power found in the Constitution. … But the adoption of the broader construction leaves the power to spend subject to limitations. … [T]he powers of taxation and appropriation extend only to matters of national, as distinguished from local, welfare."

Interpreting the constitution in this fashion makes no common sense. If this one clause in the constitution gives the legislature discretionary power to tax the people and spend it on whatever programs they deem to provide for the general welfare then the constitution serves no purpose since any administration can and will define anything they want — most likely special interest legislation — to be providing for the welfare of the people and who is going to stop them and that is precisely the purpose of the constitution: to keep the government in check. In other words, in a document meant to constrain the power of the federal government our founding fathers gave them unbridled power?

Given the nature of men, the long dubious history of government corruption, fraud and waste, I find it difficult to believe that anyone thinks our legislature should be or posses the faculties to be our moral compass. Or that they truly act in the interest of the general welfare of the people rather than themselves.

Furthermore, any taxing of the people and spending by the government — even defense spending — by nature necessarily decreases the welfare of those taxed.

Consider the congress decides that providing healthcare for Americans is providing for their general welfare.

But the government has to pay for this healthcare somehow so they either raise our taxes, borrow money from foreign countries or have the Federal Reserve print more money to pay for it. All equally effective forms of taxation.

Let’s assume the government taxes Peter an extra $500/year in order to pay for healthcare for Paul. But of course that $500 won’t be $500 by the time it goes through the government’s inefficient beauracy so they also have to tax Robert, David, Jim and many others just to provide healthcare for Paul. Now Paul is better off because he now has healthcare. But all the people that were taxed to pay for it are worse off. They didn’t want to give that $500 to the government. They wanted to use it for clothes or food or investment or any number of other things.

Even if they receive the national healthcare as well they are still worse off since they had no choice in the matter. What if they don’t want government healthcare? They still have to pay the taxes. What if they don’t get hurt or sick to the point that they need to use the national healthcare? They still have to pay for it. And since $1 always comes out in any government program less than $1 there are many more people who are worse off resulting in a net negative change to social welfare.

Governments are always wrong in their estimations of the cost of their programs. In the 60′s Medicaid part A was estimated to cost $9 billion by 1990. As of 1990 Medicaid Part A had cost $67 billion in real dollars. Social welfare was certainly decreased.

Every dollar the government takes out of someone’s pocket is a dollar that person no longer has to spend for himself. Even if he is a recipient of the program his welfare is still less since he was forced to participate in a program he had no say in and had to give up other things he wanted to do.

Even if someone wants the government healthcare their welfare will decrease due to the quality of the care. The governments’ inherent inefficiencies, corruption and waste will provide subpar healthcare. Everybody remembers the scandal at Walter Reid Army Hospital. That is government run healthcare. Just visit your local VA or Army hospital. Talk to people about Medicare and Medicaid and other social healthcare programs that already exist and see what they say. The quality will also continue to go down as the costs go up since there are no market signals to correct the inefficiencies. The inefficiencies will be dealt with by spending more money to correct the problem decreasing social welfare even further.

Economically, financially, logistically and socially it is impossible for the federal government to provide for the general welfare regardless of what they do. That’s why if a clause in the constitution is not clear and concise then it should be discounted and not interpreted to be anything more than what it is. Clauses like general welfare clauses are an example as compared to clauses such as:

"To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;"

If the purpose of the document is to limit the power of the federal government then the constitution should be interpreted without making any assumptions regarding meaning.

For example, if the federal government wants to create a new department to regulate water then there had better be a clause in the constitution explicitly giving the government the legal authority to regulate water. If there isn’t then they do not have the authority and only via an amendment to the constitution can they gain it. Amendments are difficult to make and that is precisely what the authors of the constitution wanted: to make it difficult for the government to increase its power. Again, the amendment process is meaningless if the clause "general welfare" means anything they want. No need to amend the constitution we’ll just say it’s providing for the general welfare.

Any clause that could be interpreted to mean many things therefore means nothing.

Don Cooper [send him mail] is a Florida native, Navy veteran and economist living and working in the Midwest.

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