Now that Rep. Ron Paul is again a presidential candidate, his constitutional views will come under increasing scrutiny, as happened yesterday when he was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Not surprisingly, critics immediately leapt on Paul’s “crankish view” that Social Security, Medicare, and other such programs are unconstitutional. Even Wallace seemed taken aback, citing the document’s General Welfare Clause:
The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.
“Doesn’t Social Security come under promoting the general welfare of the United States?” Wallace asked, incredulously.
One does not have to agree with everything Paul has said or stood for over the years to grant that he has a point, and a very important one. It’s a mark of how widespread our constitutional misunderstanding is that so many Americans take it for granted, at least until the Tea Party came along, that most of what the federal government does today is constitutional.
In a nutshell, the Constitution was written and ratified to both authorize and limit the government created through it. It was designed to do the latter not through the Bill of Rights — that was an afterthought, added two years later — but through the doctrine of enumerated powers. Article I, section 8, grants the Congress only 18 powers. Nothing for education, or retirement security, or health care: Those responsibilities were left to the states or to the people, as the Tenth Amendment makes clear.
So what about the General Welfare Clause, the first of Congress’s 18 powers? To be sure, the clause was inartfully drafted, like several other provisions in the Constitution. But it was understood by nearly all as granting Congress the power simply to tax (in limited ways: see the full text). The terms “common Defence” and “general Welfare” were meant merely as general headings under which the 17 other specific powers or ends were subsumed.
In fact, the question came up almost immediately, during the ratification debates, and in early Congresses as well, so we have a rich record of just what the General Welfare Clause meant. Here, for example, in Federalist #41, is James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution:
Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. 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…. But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon?
Indeed, as was often asked: What was the point of enumerating the 17 other powers if Congress could do anything it wanted under this single power? The Framers could have stopped right there. They didn’t because they meant for Congress to have only certain limited powers, each one enumerated in Article I, section 8. And taxing for the general welfare limited Congress even further by precluding it from providing for special parties or interests.
Nor does it change anything to note, as Wallace did yesterday, that the Supreme Court upheld the Social Security Act in 1937 — as if that settled the question. As a practical matter it settled things, of course, just as Plessy v. Ferguson settled the “separate-but-equal” issue in 1896, only to be reversed in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and Bowers v. Hardwick settled the issue of homosexual sodomy in 1986, only to be reversed in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. It’s well understood that the 1937 Court, cowed by Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Court-packing threat, simply reversed 150 years of understanding and precedent concerning the doctrine of enumerated powers. And that removed the Constitution’s main restraint on federal power — not by constitutional amendment but by judicial fiat.
But it’s not been “extreme liberals” alone, Wallace went on to say, who’ve read the Constitution as the 1937 Court did, noting that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia recently told a congressional gathering: “It’s up to Congress how you want to appropriate, basically.” To be sure, from fear over “judicial activism,” many conservative judges have bought into the New Deal’s constitutional revolution. Perhaps the most that can be said on their side is that the Court cannot alone, this late in the day, reverse these mistakes.
In fact, this unconstitutionality cannot be undone overnight even by the Congress. Here again there are practical concerns, as Paul has recognized. Vast numbers of people have come to rely on these welfare schemes, however unsustainable they are in the long run, as has become increasingly clear. If constitutional fidelity can serve to spur fiscal discipline, however, we may yet slowly work our way out of our present and long-term fiscal dilemma. But that felicitous result will not happen until we admit both our infidelity and our indiscipline — the two are intimately connected.
By reading the General Welfare Clause in isolation, therefore, Wallace and others turn the Constitution on its head. Rather than a document aimed at limiting government, it becomes a document authorizing unlimited government. And let’s be clear: The basic issue here is nothing more — nor less — than legitimacy. Do we live under the Constitution, or don’t we? If Ron Paul’s views on this fundamental question are “cranky,” so too were those of Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and the rest of the Founders we revere.
See this Cato essay for more on constitutional basics.