Domestic Affairs

The Constitutional Case For Collectivism: A Defense of the Welfare State

When we read the preamble of the Constitution, how should we think of its implications today over two-hundred years later? It states that “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” When we look at the state of the union in 2023, do we think that justice has been established, domestic tranquility achieved, the welfare of the people secured, and the blessings of liberty properly secured for generations to come? If not, why not, and how can we make it so? What does it mean, exactly, for “welfare” to be promoted? Today, welfare implies a range of topics impacting the daily well-being of our citizens including healthcare, economic opportunity, and education which have dominated most of what is considered domestic governance. It seems that welfare has become the highest goal for the aggregate of government affairs. The welfare state is important because it works to provide citizens with what they immediately need. This grants them an actual condition of freedom and welfare they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

I wouldn’t argue that simply because these ideas are mentioned in the Constitution that the Government is wholly in charge of executing them. As a government established by the people and for the people, it is also the duty of the citizens to uphold these values in our daily lives. Yet, as a polity, we must decide how much of a presence the government should have regarding these considerations. 

Since our founding, constitutional originalists have argued that we should stick to the letter of the Constitution without trying to interpret it progressively. However, the framers themselves disagreed with this view. In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson famously said that the “earth belongs always to the living generation” and not the “dead,” and that this consideration is consequential to the governments of nations in that they can’t be constrained by antiquated visions of government when deciding the best policy. When addressing the Constitutional Convention, Madison remarked that “in framing a system which we wish to last for the ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.” Alexander Hamilton exemplified his flexible interpretation of the Constitution when he voiced support to charter a national bank. However, though Madison and Jefferson expressed these sentiments, they also expressed certain visions of particular Constitutional clauses that have long been eroded. The general welfare clause is one of them. They contended that providing for the “general welfare” referred narrowly to the enumerated powers of the national government, a.k.a. providing funds for the maintenance of the government and its goals. Hamilton disagreed and saw the general welfare clause as a freestanding clause providing the government with additional objectives. Thus, the framers had different ideas about how the Constitution should be read, but generally agreed that it should be a living document.

We now open the door to the vast and complicated realm of constitutional interpretation. Should we agree with Hamilton or Jefferson and Madison regarding the general welfare clause? American Philosopher and civic education theorist, Mortimer Adler, argued that as time goes on, government objectives change. Adler looks to the succeeding developments after the constitution was written that shifted priority. The Gilded Age inspired the government to prioritize labor reform and trust-busting. The New Deal era saw the establishment of a welfare state to help provide for the vulnerable. The Civil Rights Movement inspired the government to prioritize the civil liberties of minorities. To Adler, it can plainly be acknowledged that the American government in the 20th century chose to incorporate the general welfare clause as the constitutional basis for providing for the “common good,” meaning increased social welfare spending and a priority for social justice. By tweaking Jefferson’s words that the “government which governs least governs best,” Adler asserts a new perspective: “that government which governs most justly governs best.” Adler refuses to see why a new interpretation of the Constitution is at all repulsive to the original intention of the founders, as they saw it as a living document. He suggests that when it is understood in light of its protections of civil liberties, it is perfectly harmonious for the government to also provide for the welfare of its citizens. In sum, the government decided to re-interpret the constitution to provide more for the welfare of its people in the 20th century. Now we ask, were they right in doing so? I would argue yes for the welfare state works to provide a real condition of freedom for the economically disadvantaged.

If civil rights are protected, why not the rights to a living wage, equal opportunity, and other social welfare provisions? Adler argues that economic rights should now be included in the general notion of civil rights. He states that by “economic rights” he means supporting the economic welfare of people in this country who can’t provide for themselves or who suffer because of a lack of opportunity. Adler’s discussion of economic rights boils down to a disagreement about whether or not certain taxation (e.g. income taxing) infringes on the rights of citizens by taking their money. This was American philosopher Robert Nozick’s position, expounding his view that “taxation of earnings is akin to slave labor.” If the 9th Amendment states that the Bill of Rights is not an exhaustive list, should it imply that people have a right for their wealth to remain untaxed in certain ways or that they have a right to material wealth in the first place?

In considering the validity of income taxation, a differentiation should be made between the principle of freedom and the actual conditions of freedom among certain citizens in the country. In Nozick’s case, the principle of freedom applies against welfare taxation in that the material freedom of the person being taxed is infringed. However, what about the real condition of freedom of those who live in redlined districts where economic opportunity is stagnant and the public education experience is mired by anxiety, lack of resources, and teacher shortages? I would argue that for people with unequal economic conditions, their real condition of freedom is restricted. Why, then, should the principle of freedom be prioritized over the provision of real freedom to poor neighborhoods with little economic opportunity, underperforming school districts, and the disabled and elderly? Where, really, is the freedom for the starving schizophrenic who lives under dirty overpasses? Does a country that boasts its freedom not care at all for the conditions of those who fall through the cracks? How do disabled elderly people provide for themselves when they can’t get a job? Should the general welfare clause really not act as a cause for them? Why not?

Since the 1950s, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued throughout his life that the richest country in the world can do more for education and the poor. Should the government really do nothing at all with problems that so negatively affect our welfare like teacher shortages, underperforming students, and climate change? To ensure the American Dream for all Americans, the government must contemplate how it can distribute wealth as a material resource for the betterment of the underprivileged and neglected today, as well as in the future. 

The welfare state was the logical next step for an industrialized country with vast wealth. Voters should keep in mind the importance of government funding and how the money flowing through the veins of such a strong economy could be utilized for thoughtful initiatives that improve the welfare of others. We must remind ourselves of the purpose of the underlying Constitutional clause, as it inspires the government to look out for those who can’t look out for themselves or could use assistance. The welfare state exists in order to fulfill the insurance of the general welfare, for this is what the Constitution now upholds.

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