Welfare and the General Welfare

It has been argued that providing welfare for the least fortunate among us serves the common good—our “general Welfare.”  This is certainly true when that welfare flows from individual to individual or group, or from private group or the community to the individual or the group.

However, when that welfare flows, as a first resort, from government, it cannot be for the general Welfare—both by design and by logic.  That government welfare is not in the design of our government, not in our Constitution, is made plain by Representative James Madison in the 3rd Congress, on the matter of providing welfare to Haitian revolution victims:

Mr. Madison wished to relieve the sufferers, but was afraid of establishing a dangerous precedent, which might hereafter be perverted to the countenance of purposes very different from those of charity.  He acknowledged, for his own part, that he could not undertake to lay his finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right of Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.

Rep Madison clearly recognized the dangers inherent in government-driven welfare: our Constitution has given our Federal government authority to pursue certain limited ends only.  These ends do not include authorization to provide the vast array of goods and services that today reduce so many of us to government dependency.  Instead, assistance is properly first the obligation of private individuals and private organizations, where dependency is not automatically created, and where it is accidentally, the scope of that dependency is far more limited.

Thomas Jefferson recognized, as well, the danger of ascribing a welfare component to the “general Welfare”—the national welfare—clause of our Constitution.  To interpret, wrote Jefferson, “general welfare” as granting the Federal government an 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.”  He wrote on another occasion, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated….”  Plainly, this includes a lack of Constitutional authority to provide welfare to individuals or to government-selected groups of individuals.

Nor can the government, as a first resort, provide welfare—under the guise of the general Welfare—as a matter of logic.  The general Welfare is the common good; it is the benefit of all of us as a national whole.  Thus, it cannot the benefit only some of us, and it cannot diminish any of us.  Yet, when government serves as the provider of the first instant of welfare, it can do so only by taking from some and giving it to others through a wealth redistribution mechanism—by taking from a disfavored group and giving the proceeds to a favored group.  Plainly, setting some groups above others cannot serve the common good: it can serve only a part of the whole, and it can do so only at the expense of the rest of the whole.

In the end, then, if there is to be welfare, and there needs to be, it must come from us directly.  Welfare is a matter of our personal obligations—from our Judea-Christian heritage and from those First Principles of our Declaration of Independence.  All men have an inalienable endowment, imbued in us by our Creator.  We have, then, a personal obligation to be the first source of welfare for those less fortunate than us, who actually need the hand up.  But it must come first from us to us, and not first through our government as intermediary.

A question was asked recently of the Estonian Economics Minister Juhan Parts.  “[D]oesn’t the government have to help those on the losing end of social change?”   “Of course,” he answered, “it’s important to help a society’s losers, the ones who are left behind. It would be wonderful to have a fantastic healthcare system and offer social guarantees for every emergency.  But you have to have the money.  We…have to reflect on what’s important for a society’s development….  If all you do is administer, nothing comes of it. The state must clear the way for those who want to achieve something. That’s the function of the state.”

We knew that once.  We would do well to relearn it.  Together with that uniquely American perspective (absent, you’ll notice, from Parts’ answer): we are first to help each other.

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