The constitution states
in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare,. These are the intents, and following are the methods. The intents do not provide the privileges of the government to reach those intents in whatever way the government wants to. Theoretically, the government could ensure domestic tranquility by nuking the popluation to zero, but, since the clause is only an intent, the constitution provides no privilege for the government to do so. And, generally, wherein there is a potentially limitless objective, such as “insure domestic tranquilicy”, one must look for the limiting part, which in this case, is the rest of the constitution.
The general welfare clause is
Congress shall have Power To lay ... Taxes ... to ... provide for the ... general Welfare of the United States. Interestingly, in the same document, congress is given the power “To establish Post Offices”. Now, if the intent of “Power to lay taxes to provide for the general Welfare” meant “Power to establish any agencies for the general Welfare of the Untied States”, then why wouldn’t it say that and why would they instead write about taxes and the purpose for those taxes? It is because the so called “general welfare clause” is actually a limitation on taxes, not an empowerment to act for the general welfare outside of the specific privileges presented to government in the consitution. For instance
- the post office is for the general welfare and it is one of the specified privileges of government set forth in the constituion, so, by the clause
The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes..., congress thus has the power to tax to provide the post office.
- a balloon distribution center may be for the general welfare, but it is not specified as a privilege of government. So, not only are they not allowed to build one, they are not allowed to tax for one.
And, the writings of the founders support this, compiled by Adam J. Bulava (https://ajbulava.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/original-meaning-of-the-general-welfare/):
- James Madison
With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creator.
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.
If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.
- Federalist #41
It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it… 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 nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars… But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare?
- Alexander Hamilton –
The only qualification of the generallity of the Phrase in question, which seems to be admissible, is this–That the object to which an appropriation of money is to be made be General and not local; its operation extending in fact, or by possibility, throughout the Union, and not being confined to a particular spot. No objection ought to arise to this construction from a supposition that it would imply a power to do whatever else should appear to Congress conducive to the General Welfare. A power to appropriate money with this latitude which is granted too in express terms would not carry a power to do any other thing, not authorised in the constitution, either expressly or by fair implication.`
- Thomas Jefferson
Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated. They are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. To consider the latter phrase not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please which may be good for the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless. It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please…. Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them. It was intended to lace them up straightly within the enumerated powers and those without which, as means, these powers could not be carried into effect. That of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.
Without the concept of limitation, the part might as well read “Congress shall have taxing power to do good however they define good”, which is absurd.