The general welfare clause is not a carte blache authority for government to create federal programs and raise money through taxes to pay for them because of a perceived need or desire by the people or politicians. The argument put forth by the Federalists (see Federalist 41) was that the “general Welfare” only pertained to those functions clearly and specifically listed in Article I.
Since the Federalists won that argument as denoted by the fact that the Constitution was ratified, it is the definition that we must abide by since the Constitution has not been otherwise amended to change this. To do otherwise puts us in clear violation of the Constitution by default. We should also note that the anti-Federalists did not support the term “general Welfare” being used in the Constitution because they thought it was too broad of a term and wanted the limited powers of government more strictly defined. As such, since both sides agreed in concept to limited government bound by a short and finite list of functions there is no argument that can be reasonably made to support the concept of the founders believing anything else.
Some will try to make a poor attempt at claiming the “general Welfare” clause is much broader by citing Alexander Hamilton’s position and belief that it was. However a proper reading of his arguments shows that he actually believed in a limited government and that the term “general Welfare” was not broad. The entire misconception occurs when the debate between Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Jefferson began over the concept of a national bank.
To understand this debate fully and see Mr. Hamilton’s true view of the general Welfare clause, read my pamphlet Here Hangs Lady Liberty.
The arguments over the Constitution, and particularly the general Welfare clause being included, were basically between those that claimed it was too broad as written and should be rejected without additional safeguards and those that claimed that it was limited in scope as written and needed no additional safeguards.
Few claimed that it was too broad and as such that it was a good thing! So the view of the modern Hamiltonian who is misreading Hamilton’s original arguments is properly discredited just as one would discredit the vast minority of people that believe the Earth is still flat. Fine – they believe it, but they are not in the right.
Updated April 6, 2011