Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"General Welfare" and Health Care

I seldom read liberal blogs because I have better things to do with my time. And they generally make my head hurt, which is an experience I try to avoid. On occasion, I will read one, usually to find an example of some point I want to make. Thus it was that I went to Half Empty to read why health care is a constitutional right.

The post's title was my first clue regarding what I would read. The blog's tag line was my second clue:
Expect the worse. That way you can be pleasantly surprised when the worst fails to occur.
This is the type of cynical attitude that we have come to expect from the Left. Life is a tortuous struggle filled with suffering, and then you die. Any success you somehow manage to achieve will only be temporary, because soon the rich and powerful will take it all away. But this isn't the point of my post.

Half Empty cites an article on Politico, in which a self-described “dumb southern Iowa redneck” asks Sen. Chuck Grassley to identify the section of the Constitution that states that health care is a right. Citing the Preamble of the Constitution, Half Empty writes:
So what, I ask, is the argument against having, as a constitutional right, the right to health care when it is right there in the Preamble that one of the purposes of the constitution is to “promote the general welfare” of the people.
This, along with quoting one paragraph from another web site, is the entirety of his argument. He closes by asking:
So, dumb Iowa redneck, is the question answered?
Actually, it isn't. Apparently, Half Empty is completely empty of knowledge regarding the Constitution, and has never read anything by James Madison on the subject. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, knows a thing or two about that document and the "general welfare" clause:
If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress.... Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America."
Madison correctly understood that the "general welfare" clause could be interpreted to mean anything and everything; it could be used to justify any government program. To give that clause such broad and undefined meaning would be to render the Constitution itself irrelevant, which is precisely what Half Empty proposes.

Anyone who wishes to comment on the "general welfare" clause would do well to read the Federalist Papers, as well as Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention. Both make abundantly clear the meaning and intent of that clause. For example, in Federalist #41 Madison explained the inclusion of the "general welfare" clause in the Preamble:
For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural or more common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify by an enumeration of the particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity ... what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions and disregarding the specifications which limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the general welfare?
There are many, many more instances in which Madison and other Founders explained the meaning and intent of the "general welfare" clause. But the meaning and intent of the Founders is of no concern to the Left--they regard the Constitution as a living, breathing document that should be interpreted according the the whims of the moment. They don't want to be "confined" by such things as principles. They believe that what was true yesterday, let alone more than 200 years ago, could not possibly be true today.

The fact is, the purpose of the Constitution was to protect individuals from arbitrary government dictates. It was not a grant of unlimited powers, subject to the changing tastes of the time, or the interpretation of power lusters. It was a limitation on the powers of government, and it enumerated those powers, reserving all others to the states and individuals.

Liberals, as well as many conservatives, do not want to be constrained by such limitations. They want unbridled power to dictate and control. If they have to misrepresent the words of America's founding heroes, so be it. If they have to invent "rights", no problem. To them, it's just a game, and individuals are dispensable tokens.


Jason Q said...

Half Empty made his/her argument poorly, but you're still wrong.

Are you referring to the actual "general welfare" clause in Article I, Section 8? To wit:

"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; [...]"

That is where the argument lies. It's possible to find justification in there for damned near anything you want federal taxes to pay for.

I would also direct your attention to the "Necessary and Proper" clause in A1/S8, which Madison actually was in favor of, though the opposition at the time said that it would lead to excessive federal power.

One great counter-example of Original Intent going out the window is the existence of a large military. There's nothing in the Constitution allowing for large standing armies or navies, yet we have them.

The Founders opposed standing armies because they invited foreign adventurism (hm...) and can easily be turned into tools of oppression. (You wanna talk about unconstitutional - The War Powers Act is a particularly egregious usurpation/abdication of Congressional authority.)

(NB: For Madison's part, he was diametrically opposed to large standing armies, believing a militia was called for.)

The notion that the Constitution is a "living document" is not borne out of some imagined lack of principle, but out of a recognition that the reality we exist in is immeasurably different than the one the Founders lived in.

Madison and the other Founders, brilliant as they were, could not have foreseen (except in the broadest sense) the issues and problems we face today.

The notion that reality is not fixed and unchanging is one of the core principles of the Enlightenment, out of which this country was born. To reject that notion basically rejects the philosophical underpinnings this country was founded upon.

Brian Phillips said...


You write: "The notion that reality is not fixed and unchanging is one of the core principles of the Enlightenment, out of which this country was born. To reject that notion basically rejects the philosophical underpinnings this country was founded upon."

This is absurd. Are you claiming that gravity isn't an absolulte? Are you saying that the sun sometimes rises in the west?

The "philosophical underpinnings" upon which America was founded is the inalienable right of each individual to his own life, liberty, and puruist of happiness. This means that each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.