Friday, May 8, 2015

Limits on Government Power -vs- Implied Power...

Rational Nation USA
Purveyor of Truth

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States....


The general welfare clause of the constitution has been been debated since before ratification and continues to this day. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were notable advocates of a strict interpretation and Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John Adams advocated a broader implied powers interpretation. Liberals today hold with the implied powers interpretation and conservatives and libertarians with the strict construction interpretation.

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. {Thomas Jefferson}

In this we see the concern a majority of the founders, as well as citizens of the time, held; that a strong central government with unlimited powers could very well restrict the liberties of all citizens.

“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.” {James Madison}

It is clear that James Madison, the father of our Constitution, recognized the dangers inherent in a government with unlimited power. A majority of Madison's countrymen were supportive of a limited central power with delineated powers as well.

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. {Alexander Hamilton}

Even as Hamilton had a more liberal view of the clause and favored the implied powers argument, having made it on numerous occasions, it is clear from the above he understood the intent of Article I, Section 8, Clause 1.

It is likely the debate will continue for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Today's political environment is heavily shaped by the arguments pitting strict interpretation advocates against implied powers advocates. Liberty, depending on how one defines liberty, has either been restricted and limited or enhanced and expanded by the historical trend that has moved the nation to acceptance of the implied powers argument. Whether that is good or evil again depends on ones individual perspectives. Judging from the political rancor between conservatives/libertarians and liberals today the jury is still out and may not return.

Above quotes taken from The Government Teacher.

What say you?


  1. When a libertarian talks about constructionism, legislative or judicial, at least they really mean it. Conservatives have a very different view, and it's so hypocritical, it just kills the message. The message, however, is killed anyway by the nature of our democracy, that annoying, always to some, common will that is as much a part of the construction of this republic as anything else.


  2. Encouraging that you realize the difference between honest libertarianism and hypocritical conservatism Jersey.

    As much as the founders advocated maximum liberty and limited central federal powers (they were correct in doing so in 1787) it is doubtful they believed the federal government would remain unchanged exactly as it was at its inception. In fact it is likely they knew it would change over time and were probably A-OKAY with it, the amendment process attests to this.

    The founders where also practical and realized that the principles on which the constitution was based were sound and therefore made the amendment process long and rather difficult. They knew changing the foundation of the republic on a whim would make the USA no different than nations with Monarchs that were ruled by the whims of men. They new we must
    be a nation of laws and such the USA became and remained.

    Unfortunately we see a nation that is losing its bearings. We can argue over the causes and probably will ad Infinitum. But there is no doubt our nation is changing and the forces against change are growing and are growing ugly; but perhaps you are right Jersey, will usually rules the day. That my friend is what worries me.

  3. Sometimes, strict interpretations of the Constitution and “Tenther” arguments strike me as rather silly because they are often contradictory, self-serving, and mask a hidden agenda. What is meant by the “general welfare” and “less government” is in the eye of the beholder.

    Here is one contradiction: Social conservatives are usually loud and shrill over the virtues of smaller government, and covetous of their precious ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ as they define these for themselves; but what they really mean is “smaller government” from a fiscal and taxation perspective while vastly expanding the authority of government over very private matters. ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ for one may mean oppression and suppression for someone else.

    Another contradiction: Federalism versus states rights. The Constitution is not an immutable document but one that has changed with respect to time and context. The 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments were added after the Civil War, and the arrow of history points in the direction of universal human rights and equality for all under law. States no longer have the legal authority to abrogate those rights.

    The world of 1783 was very different. The Civil War, the Gilded Age, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, and nuclear Armageddon were unknown to the original framers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder; would the Constitution have been written differently if the framers had the benefit of historical hindsight? In adapting to a changing world, some look will ahead while others remain stuck in time.

  4. For me it's all about long term rational self interest. I am beginning to think I'm alone in that category. Most do not understand it as this person does. Even Rand didn't. She never made the necessary leap of reason to the next plane.

    Oh well, probably just me.

    1. Rand definitely would not have been on board with your "benevolent capitalism". You would be a part of the problem in her mind, as this would be encouraging the leeches. Les might be a fan of Rand, but Rand would not be a fan of Les.

    2. Dervish, perhaps she wouldn't. Ya know what? Either way I could not give a sh*t less.

      As to being a problem in here mind, we'll never know that as we never had the opportunity to discus the issue one on one.

      Whether Rand would be a fan of mine or not? I couldn't give a sh*t less.

      Now Derve ole boy, stop losing sleep over this sh*t. I am who I am and it is what it is.


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