Vital Signs

The Necrosis of Limited Government

The words "general welfare" have had the greatest significance in modern American life of any in the Constitution. Originally regarded by its 18th century Federalist creators as a restraint on federal power, the brake of general welfare has been transformed, retooled by the U.S. Supreme Court into a huge turbine, a supercharger that drives today's immense federal power grid. In modern times, "general welfare" has become the constitutional touchstone for vast portions of the federal taxing, spending, and regulator)' apparatus. "General welfare" is the linchpin of federal expansionism, the last straw almost invariably grasped by those whose federal social schemes cannot find constitutional warrant in any enumerated power.

That use of the General Welfare Clause is a development that would have jolted James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and his close friend Thomas Jefferson—had they envisioned the judicial torture that modern jurists have inflicted on the clause.

Indeed, the abuse of the clause would have startled even the fervent arch-centralist and expansionist Alexander Hamilton. Selling the proposed Constitution to the ratifying states, Hamilton assured readers of Federalist 83 that the new Constitution would grant no "general legislative authority." Hamilton's representation alone disembowels the arguments of the federal expansionists.


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