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January 11, 2011

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Folks who espouse a libertarian, or "classic liberal", point of view will tell us that "the general welfare" is synonymous with individual liberty.

I don't think so. I've never heard anyone assert that. In fact, I don't think classical liberals would dispute your definition of either the general welfare or the commonwealth.

The dispute in this context is less over what general welfare means, than over specifically what Congress is allowed to do in order to promote it. Classical liberals would say that the Constitution lists those things. The list is to be found in Article I, section 8. There are about seventeen.

The term "general welfare" is simply a feudal leftover from those days before the days when the propertied merchant class, infused with subversive Enlightenment ideals, their wealth enhanced by the accidentally simultaneous confluence of coal, technology, and fire arms, and the internalization of their enhanced social standing and power, led them to throw peasants off the land in the Old World, expropriate the New World, and engage in bloody class based revolution.

Think of "general welfare" as a social appendix.

I've never heard anyone assert that.

I've had conversations here on this board with people I would describe as not only not insane, but reasonable, wherein I was informed that the "general welfare" was synonymous not only with individual liberty, but with the free market.

So, whatever.

Think of "general welfare" as a social appendix.

Post-feudal, but IMO you have a point. The "appendix" was still a functioning organ as of 1790, however. As of 50 years ago, I'd even say.

I think it's an idea that's familiar to anyone who's ever put in for pizza, or coughed up ten bucks for someone to go buy a keg, or put in some notes for an office birthday / farewell / commiseration gift.

Most of us, most of the time, just contribute our money and trust the one or two people to spend it appropriately. If you care how it gets spent, get involved in the actual purchasing decision and take on that responsibility. But everyone in the group puts in.

The notion of the commonwealth has been the focus of a lot of philosophical attention over the last decade, most notably by Philip Pettit.

The dispute in this context is less over what general welfare means, than over specifically what Congress is allowed to do in order to promote it.

That strikes me as totally backwards. The meaning and ends of "general welfare" lie at the heart of what dispute there is. Disagreements about the federal governments 'enumerated powers' or whether it is or is not 'in the Constitution' are mere window dressing....disputes about blocking the others' means to get to an end you find unacceptable.

At the moment, in America, this is what "general welfare" means:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0111/47445.html

I have a feeling though that the folks who need the guns to protect themselves aren't the ones looking out after their own welfare, but instead the murderous redrum filth and vermin are buying their second, third, and fourth guns to butcher the rest of us, to prevent taxation, or to prohibit over-exuberant treehugging, or to edit the wrong Constitutional grammar from becoming ascendant.

"General welfare" is bad grammar.

Excellent post and really well-written, Russell.


More metaphors for the "general welfare":

"A South Carolina gun and accessories company is selling semi-automatic rifle components inscribed with “You lie” – a tribute to the infamous words of 2nd District Republican Congressman Joe Wilson when he shouted at President Barack Obama during a congressional speech about national health care reform in the fall of 2009.

“Palmetto State Armory would like to honor our esteemed congressman Joe Wilson with the release of our new ‘You Lie’ AR-15 lower receiver,” reads a portion of the company’s website.

The product “is neither endorsed nor affiliated with Joe Wilson or his campaign,” according to a line of text at the bottom of the page. A picture of Wilson holding a rifle and standing in the company’s gun shop appears on the same page. The company offers the components, marked “MULTI to accommodate most builds,” for $99.95 apiece."

More from Balloon Juice on the general welfare:

http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/01/11/what-will-he-say-this-year/

And for good measure, I want to be reborn as former Republican John Cole, but I would have to pour gasoline on myself and light a match to attain that status:

http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/01/11/just-because-both-sides-do-it/

There is no general welfare in America any longer, nor a Commonwealth.

There can't be any general welfare as long as this zombie walks the same streets as I do:

http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/gop-rep-loughners-beliefs

Bobo said in a column that the assassin's reading list included "Peter Pan, Hitler's Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto." And then went on to speculate that this was not exactly Tea Party reading material, to counter various charges.

Well, he's right, I guess. Obviously, Tea Party f*ckwads HAVEN'T read Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto if they have spent so much time and money constructing placards depicting President Obama as Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin, and Step'in'Fetchit.

The jury is out on Peter Pan, but I think they may have that mixed him up with Allah, given all the flying by the seat of their respective pants.

It's not possible to attain general welfare with these people.


Hi. Name's von. Classic liberal and all that (so I like to think).

The general welfare clause has been construed not as a free-ranging power, but as part of the taxation power set forth in article 1, section 8, first paragraph. To wit:

"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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;"

This interpretation -- which is perfectly consistent with libertarian views (not all of which I hold) -- is not new, but has held since Justice Story and Chief Justice Marshall. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Welfare_clause#United_States)

Accordingly, the casual reader should be aware that Russell is espousing a radical reinterpretation of the "general welfare" clause, which, to my knowledge, has never been adopted by any court from the founding of the US. And then, with more than a little hubris, accusing those who agree with the ordinary and accepted interpretation of this clause of radicalism.

Russell's entitled to his views about what this clause should mean, but let's start with describing the history first. As a very wise English teacher once told me: You've got to learn the rules before you break 'em -- it's the difference between Faulkner and gibberish.

What strikes me is that THE VERY FIRST of the "Enumerated Powers" is the power to tax.

Specifically, the power to tax "to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States". So many of the "conservative" wing take the common Defense to be graven on tablets of stone by the finger of God Almighty...and yet...you'd think that the general Welfare was tracked in, stuck to the shoe of Defense instead of being introduced in the same breath, co-equal in the Framers' joint estimation.

No real conservative would let such a notorious misreading stand unchallenged.

The general welfare clause has been construed not as a free-ranging power, but as part of the taxation power set forth in article 1, section 8, first paragraph.

I agree with this.

The question is what "the general welfare" means.

I'm even open to, and basically fine with, the narrower reading, wherein it is limited in scope to the more specific enumeration of powers that follows.

I'm not sure it's necessary to read it that way, that's certainly not a reading guys like Hamilton, Washington, Adams, and lots of others would espouse, and as a practical, "sorry, that horse is out of the barn" matter we do not in fact read it that way in practice, and have not done so for a very long time.

But reading it that way doesn't bug me much.

What I say it does not mean, and is not consistent with, is anything other than the broad public good. The well-being of the people in the aggregate. Against which individual rights must be balanced, and above which, they are not.

Nice to meet you von.

The bald assertion that Classical Liberalism (and its bastard offspring vulgar libertarianism), a social philosophy that did not reach full flower until well into the 19th century, has some special congruence with the real meaning and intent of the U.S. Constitution, while widely shared and commonly understood notions about the Commons and the word 'general' in the phrase General Welfare derived as it was from common western social practices and common law for centuries prior to its adoption does not....well, that does not strike me as dispositive.

So just how revolutionary was our revolution?

The defense of hubris rests, your honor.

we see ourselves in all things

Congratulations, russell. You just got mansplained.

The question is what "the general welfare" means.

I'd think the question is more: what does "the general Welfare of the United States" mean? Does it mean the general welfare of the populace? Of the states themselves? Of the national government?

I'd guess the middle of those three, myself. But I haven't really read much about What They Meant By That particular bit.

My own suspicion is that the Framers decided it would be much better to foster a couple of centuries of nonstop debate about what some chunks of the Constitution mean, so that we could have some temporary distractions from blaming each other for egging on the psychopath of the day.

Von,

Bobbyp has a point. Classical Liberalism is a political theory that is formed, primarily, during the mid-late 1800s.

'cept those bits that trace back to Locke, Smith, and others.

It's not as if it (or the principles behind it) sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus on April 17, 1883.

My own suspicion is that the Framers decided it would be much better to foster a couple of centuries of nonstop debate about what some chunks of the Constitution mean, so that we could have some temporary distractions from blaming each other for egging on the psychopath of the day.

a technique they learned, no doubt, from whoever it was that put together what we now call "The Bible" (who probably learned it from whoever put together the Torah).

or maybe people just mostly hate rules: hate making them, hate following them, but love pointing out when other people break them.

Good to see you still contributing, von!

As a very wise English teacher once told me: You've got to learn the rules before you break 'em -- it's the difference between Faulkner and gibberish.
A quote from a better writer than most English teachers, unless they're better writers than Kate Wilhem:
Rules exist for good reasons, and in any art form the beginner must learn them and understand what they are for, then follow them for quite a while. A visual artist, pianist, dancer, fiction writer, all beginning artists are in the same boat here: learn the rules, understand them, follow them. It's called an apprenticeship. A mediocre artist never stops following the rules, slavishly follows guidelines, and seldom rises above mediocrity. An accomplished artist internalizes the rules to the point where they don't have to be consciously considered. After you've put in the time it takes to learn to swim, you never stop to think: now I move my arm, kick, raise my head, breathe. You just do it. The accomplished artist knows what the rules mean, how to use them, dodge them, ignore them altogether, or break them. This may be a wholly unconscious process of assimilation, one never articulated, but it has taken place.
-- Kate Wilhelm.

I'm not going to argue very far with a lawyer about the law, but I'll speak up about issues of English and "rules" thereof.

or maybe people just mostly hate rules: hate making them, hate following them, but love pointing out when other people break them.

Just remember the First Rule of Fight Club, the mention of which breaks the First Rule of Fight Club.

'cept those bits that trace back to Locke, Smith, and others.

Which merely reinforces the concept that each generation stands on the shoulders of giants who preceded them, and that excluding the contribution of some of them to sharpen a rather rhetorically overblown ideological point is, well, intellectually risky..

von,

It's not clear to me what you are saying about the meaning of the clause. Congress has the power to tax, in order to

provide for the... general Welfare of the United States;

I don't see how this tells us what providing for the general welfare means. Are you saying it means only that Congress can tax to exercise other, more specifically defined powers? Then why is the clause necessary? Further, why is the business about the common defense there? After all, later on Congress is authorized to set up an army and navy.

Maybe this just illustrates the difficulty of rigid interpretation schemes.

As one may argue that there were Christians in the 3rd century BCE because of the bits that trace back to Moses, Isaiah etc.

I'd guess ["the general Welfare of the *United States*" mean(s)] [the general welfare of the States themselves], myself. But I haven't really read much about What They Meant By That particular bit.

Why would you guess that, sir? Is the obvious answer too obvious?

I will never understand the phenomenon of the (putatively) anti-statist with a Federalism fetish. I understand the *theory*, of course, but don't see how it is, in practice, that control by a more local government is always to be preferred to that of a national one. Indeed, in practice, the layer upon layer upon layer of state/county/district/town government and authority we actually have doesn't seem like an anti-statist paradise, but its opposite!

We had a similar discussion a while back vis a vis how the US Senate is populated. I believe it was GOB who objected to statehood for DC because DC is not his 'idea' of a state. If we ought all to be originalists, I'd suggest that Wyoming is not the Founder's 'idea' of a state either, and shouldn't be subject to said fetish.

Stipulated: it's worth trying to know what the Founders meant, but that doesn't mean we must do things now just as they would - not only is it impossible anyway, but not necessarily desirable.

Just sayin'

BobbyP, Someotherdude -

I'm not making any sort of claim about classic liberalism or its history. I'm pointing out that the reading of the "general welfare" clause that Russell attributes to classic liberals is not the reading used by the vast majority of classic liberals -- or, for that matter, the vast majority of folks who read that phrase.

For example, I have never understood "the general welfare" in Art. I, Sec. 8 as "synonymous with individual liberty." I read it as part of the taxation power, i.e., Congress has the power to enact certain taxes in order to implement its other enumerated power.

As one may argue that there were Christians in the 3rd century BCE because of the bits that trace back to Moses, Isaiah etc.

No, one may not, unless one wishes to be an idiot.

Or are you attempting to make the case that there was one pivotal person whose input didn't show up until much later, without whom the whole notion of classical liberal collapses in a heap?

Why would you guess that, sir? Is the obvious answer too obvious?

I have no idea what "obvious answer" you're referring to, here. Probably saying it wouldn't make it too obvious, if there is such a thing, so I ask that you just tell me what it is you have in mind.

Bernard -

Take a look here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxing_and_Spending_Clause

But keep in mind one very important point: The "broad" and "narrow" view of this reflect an argument over when Congress can tax, not an argument over when Congress can spend (or legislate).

This doesn't mean that the general welfare clause has no policy implications: taxes always have policy implications. And taxes can be creative: Some have defended the individual mandate, for instance, as constitutional by describing the penalty provision as a tax. But all these arguments link the general welfare clause to the power of taxation, and do not treat it as a free-standing power to, e.g., fund schools. (Although one might use the power to tax some schools, thereby creating an incentive to develop other schools.)

Or are you attempting to make the case that there was one pivotal person whose input didn't show up until much later, without whom the whole notion of classical liberal collapses in a heap?

I'm making the point that classical liberalism is a cluster of (mutually reinforcing but not logically integral) ideas of varying antiquity, from classical to early modern, and that teasing out the antiquity of individual ideas doesn't help to establish the age of any other individual idea or of the cluster itself. (I would have been making it less cryptically in that instance if classical liberalism were called, say, Millism, but the fact that it isn't is hardly my fault, as far as I know.)

I'm inclined to agree with von that russell would have done better to paint with the very fine camel's hair brush of "some folks who espouse [etc.]" rather than the 12-inch roller of "folks who espouse [etc.]."

Fair enough, Hogan. One might even say that it's still a work in progress; after all, Hayek had something to do with the whole classical liberalism revival, and he was definitely a 20th century man.

Slarti: I have no idea what "obvious answer" you're referring to, here. Probably saying it wouldn't make it too obvious, if there is such a thing, so I ask that you just tell me what it is you have in mind.

I think the subject of 'General Welfare' must ultimately have been the populace, whether they meant both the populace as such, as well as the populace as citizens of States, or just the former. I think it's a stretch to think that they meant the States as such. It's obvious to me, anyway.

My point was that liberty/anti-statism are in conflict with this latter view.

(I would have been making it less cryptically in that instance if classical liberalism were called, say, Millism, but the fact that it isn't is hardly my fault, as far as I know.)

How much effort have you put forth to get people to call it that, Hogan? Clearly not enough, I can only assume, given our current predicament. So, hardly your fault? I think not.

STOP JUDGING ME.

Bernard: "I don't see how this tells us what providing for the general welfare means."

Well it's not meant to. It's really quite simple. If the Congress desires to make child labor illegal in order to promote the General Welfare then it must do so via its taxing power...much like marijuana was "taxed" into illegality. This is proper. However, this taxing power is constrained severely by conservative sensibilities regarding so-called private property--unless said property is used to alter your mental state or you sell it to child mineworkers (definitely interstate commerce).

Simply abolishing child labor is promoting the GW by unconstitutional means (the commerce clause notwithstanding), and is doing something that is "not ennummerated". Thus, such a law is an assault on personal liberty and Classical Liberalism, and to think otherwise is a hubristic flight of radical historical revisionism.

This has been complicated somewhat when even conservatives (I'm looking at you Milton Friedman)espouse that to spend is to tax. Truly, we have, at this point, reached the cul-de-sac of all conundrums, because one is inevitably led to the conclusion that whatever Congress decides to spend money on is ipso facto Constitutional because it is, after all, taxation.

Regards,

Russell is taking a lot of grief possibly for something I said. My view is that "general welfare", back then, meant providing for and maintaining individual liberty, as in the preamble, the notion being that the general well being of the citizenry was protecting their individual liberty from the vagaries of rule by kings. The taxation clause, i.e, "general welfare of the United States" is something else. I think it's easier to say what it didn't mean back then, than what it did mean, or more importantly, what it means today. I don't think "general welfare" either in the Preamble or in the taxation power means the same thing as the social contract.

I think the subject of 'General Welfare' must ultimately have been the populace, whether they meant both the populace as such, as well as the populace as citizens of States, or just the former. I think it's a stretch to think that they meant the States as such.

Thanks for clarifying.

I think it's speculative, unless expressly clarified elsewhere, exactly what they had in mind.

"Welfare" is mentioned twice: in the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

and again in Article 1, Section 8:

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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

It doesn't help that in the Preamble it's talking about general Welfare if (presumably) We The People, whereas in Art1Sec8 it's general Welfare of the United States. They could mean the same thing, I suppose.

But it's an open question what limits, if any, define "general Welfare". Does it mean keeping roads and waterways serviceable so that trade & transportation flow freely, or does it mean providing a law enforcement and courts system so that law and order are upheld, or does it mean free medical care for illegal immigrants, or all of the above?

I think it's for us to say, probably.

Again: I don't think your obvious answer is all that obviously true, to me, nor is mine.

von,

Following your wikipedia link I find,

Alexander Hamilton, only after the Constitution had been ratified, argued for a broad interpretation which viewed spending as an enumerated power Congress could exercise independently to benefit the general welfare, such as to assist national needs in agriculture or education, provided that the spending is general in nature and does not favor any specific section of the country over any other.

Further down:

Shortly after Butler, in Helvering v. Davis,[22] the Supreme Court interpreted the clause even more expansively, conferring upon Congress a plenary power to impose taxes and to spend money for the general welfare subject almost entirely to its own discretion. Even more recently, the Court has included the power to indirectly coerce the states into adopting national standards by threatening to withhold federal funds in South Dakota v. Dole.[15]

To date, the Hamiltonian view of the General Welfare Clause predominates in case law.

I don't see how this fits with your statement that the dispute is only about when Congress can tax, and not about spending. You mention schools, yet it seems Hamilton included education as an item of "general welfare" to which the clause applies.

Indeed, promoting education and, say, scientific research (except by means of patents), are not among the enumerated powers in Section 8. Are you saying federal spending for these purposes unconstitutional?

Bernard, you're right. (Or, more properly, Wikipedia is write.) I had a brain freeze in writing my 3:47 p.m. post. I got fixated on the tax issues and I completely forgot about the spending aspect of the clause -- which is embarrassing, since spending is right there in the clause. It is, after all the taxing and spending clause.

I have no excuse.

What I should have written in place of spend was "legislate". In other words, Congress can fund a school under the t&s clause, but it can't regulate existing schools under the t&s clause. Well, not directly, at least. It could withhold federal school funds unless the private school complied with federal guidelines .....

This is why Congress can pay states to build roads -- or withhold federal highway funds to enforce a 21 year old drinking age, as was the case in South Dakota v. Dole -- using the t&s clause.

Sorry.

Bernard,

Yes. I also noticed that von appeared to have stopped reading the wikki entry about a third of the way through it when he got to the citation of Gibbons v Ogden.

But he was on a mission, and folks tend to hurry under those circumstances.

I think it's for us to say, probably.

Mostheartedly agree. The dead hand of the past can only reach so far.

Yes, that too, Bobbyp. Although my boneheaded error in response to Bernard doesn't make your argument (which I replied to in a different post) any better.

At one point, an impoverished person looking to improve his welfare used to be able to claim a 40-acre homestead to "prove," essentially gratis*

Many of such homesteads failed, of course, as did similar small-scale "patents" for panning gold in CA and AK. Modern notions social welfare seems a lot cheaper, more efficient, and more rational. (There just aren't that many arable acres available on today's Indian Reservations to confiscate and redistribute, after all, despite the best efforts of the BLM to distribute their oil reserves to deserving White People.)

* neglecting, of course, any pre-existing claims by Native Americans, and the capital expenses of setting up a homestead in the first place.

I think I sent us all down the rabbit hole by (a) bringing up the general welfare clause, and (b) mischaracterizing the view of classic liberals. I did include scare quotes, but that was obviously insufficiently clear.

My point here is not to argue for an expansionist reading of the general welfare clause. FWIW, IMO what the clause says is that Congress can raise money through taxation, and can spend it, but only for certain purposes, among them the general welfare.

I recognize the the argument that the powers to legislate are limited to the remaining 16 enumerated powers, and find it generally sensible and coherent, although IMO as a practical matter I don't see that particular bell being un-rung anytime soon, at least without doing a hell of a lot of damage.

A topic for another day, probably.

So what am I on about here?

My view is that "general welfare", back then, meant providing for and maintaining individual liberty, as in the preamble, the notion being that the general well being of the citizenry was protecting their individual liberty from the vagaries of rule by kings.

What I'm on about is that I think this point of view, generously shared by McKinney, is wrong. Or, more accurately, incomplete.

Individual liberty was certainly an important priority to the folks who began this country. But it was not their only priority, nor their only understanding of the purpose of government.

My point in citing the MA Constitution is to demonstrate that, at the point the nation was founded, and in the community of people who founded it, there was also a (for lack of a better word) communitarian impulse. There was a sense that individual rights need both to be protected, and also balanced against the broader public good. And, a sense that government can, and should, act purposefully in the interest of that broad public good.

Aka, the common weal.

IMO you have to do violence to both the plain and the historical sense of "general welfare" to strain "common weal" out of it.

IMO it's legitimate for government - including the federal government - to do things for no reason other than that they are, from the point of view of the broad public interest, generally good and useful things to do.

Also IMO, the idea that that is legitimate has either been lost by us, or at a minimum faces serious challenge.

And we suffer for that.

That's my point.

The enumerated powers question, and the relative scope of responsibility of the feds vs the states, are interesting questions, but weren't really what I was after here.

von,

Thanks. Above, you write,

I read it as part of the taxation power, i.e., Congress has the power to enact certain taxes in order to implement its other enumerated power.

But actually it's much broader than that, since it does encompass the power to finance schools and many other things - hospitals, national parks, who knows.

So then I'm not sure why Russell's interpretation, which is pretty non-specific, is way off. certainly to the extent what he's talking about is specific government programs that would be right in line with the clause.

von,

The assertion that many self-proclaimed libertarians and/or classic liberals do not conflate the general welfare with personal liberty, your stirring defense of the True Faith notwithstanding, is simply ludicrous. Even soft headed New Dealers like me do it.

Most of us would agree that you can't have one without the other, but that's about as far as it goes.

Sonic Charmer pretty much nailed this libertarian's view of the matter, with the very first comment: The general welfare is the end, the enumerated powers are the means. The phrase "general welfare" grants Congress no power not identified among the enumerated powers, it simply specifies what those powers are to be exercised to advance.

And, no, the general welfare is NOT identical to liberty, though liberty is certainly a necessary, though not sufficient, component of it.

If our individual liberties didn't come into conflict with one another, individual liberty would either be the beginning and the end of general welfare, or be completely orthogonal to general welfare, such that there would be no need to balance the two at all. I'm not sure which, but the fact is that limiting individual liberties is necessary for the general welfare, since those liberties would, unchecked, result in other greater liberties being lost. How else to you explain taxes and laws against murder?

I guess my point is that, if you're doing it right, the general welfare afforded by good government, even if it curtails certain liberties, maximizes individual liberty overall, while anarchy does not.

But I don't think anyone here is arguing for anarchy, not on purpose, anyway.

HSH--well, that was pretty much my point: general welfare, as promoted by a democratically elected gov't, equates to individual liberty. Not unlimited, no exceptions, do-whatever-you want whenever individual liberty, but the balance one sees in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

That's essentially why libertarians view it as so important to clearly define what sort of liberty they're concerned with. It is, of course, possible to define 'liberty' in ways which lead to contradiction, where one person's liberty is somebody else's victimization.

In fact, that's the way it's usually defined by liberals... Which is why they think they're advancing liberty by taxing some people to pay for stuff for other people. Because they've defined "liberty" to involve things which have to be supplied by somebody else.

The reason I find the classical liberal position hard to swallow, is its assumption that it is the authentic hermeneutic framework for understanding the US Constitution. As an ideology, it really does not blossom until a generation or two after the Framers. And yet, many of its devotees seem to be under the impression that it guided the Framers. A Victorian phenomenon with powerful influence, indeed.

Slarti,

I know when Locke and Smith wrote, however when studying intellectual history, it seems irresponsible to label certain thinkers by the ideologies that followed them. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard had a profound effect on the Existentialists, but it would be bad form to call those two philosophers, existentialists. Even in theology, careful theologians remind their students, that “one cannot confuse Calvin and Luther with the beliefs of Calvinists and Lutherans.” So, I get! Locke’s and Smith’s influence on the “classical liberals” however, I think the policies both thinkers supported for the British Empire, would have placed them in opposition with their devotee’s.

Slartibartfast,

Hogan is correct, there are very many conservative Christian’s that do indeed make the argument that Abraham, Moses and many other Old Testament Patriarchs, were indeed Christians, because they would have (and do, because of eternal life in heaven) recognized Jesus as Messiah. They are less vocal (or at least more careful) about this particular article of faith, because of the way it was used to justify anti-Semitic sentiment. But it is the logical conclusion of a popular conservative/literalist reading of scripture.

Many of these Christians are traditional Protestants in the US. Like in the more conservative wings of certain mainline denominations.

But actually it's much broader than that, since it does encompass the power to finance schools and many other things - hospitals, national parks, who knows.

Yes, you're of course right.* I got stuck on the tax issue pretty much from the get go -- although, as a technical matter, my description wasn't wrong because the spending power is one of the other powers I referenced. But that wasn't my intent: I wasn't trying to be sneaky or clever in my choice of words. I just done screwed up.

*I don't know about hospitals, however. Research, paying for health services, etc. -- yes. Hello, NIH. Hello, Medicare. But there's still a general requirement that the general welfare serve a national interest. A single hospital, or even a chain of hospitals, may not pass must.

von: But there's still a general requirement that the general welfare serve a national interest. A single hospital, or even a chain of hospitals, may not pass must.

What's the argument against a single hospital that doesn't apply just as well to a single Medicare payment, or to a single highway project? Most general things are composed of lots of smaller specific things. It'd be hard for the government to do anything if it couldn't do any specific things...

Which is why they think they're advancing liberty by taxing some people to pay for stuff for other people. Because they've defined "liberty" to involve things which have to be supplied by somebody else.

I'm not sure that's true.

Speaking purely for myself, I wouldn't argue that "taxing some people to pay for stuff for other people" would be a matter of enabling that other person's "liberty". It might just be doing something useful or needful for that person.

Which is sort of my point. General welfare is not synonymous with individual liberty. But, it is still a legitimate end of government.

Research, paying for health services, etc. -- yes. Hello, NIH. Hello, Medicare.

I don't think you can find any justification whatsoever for medical research, health services, the NIH, or Medicare in any of the specific powers enumerated in Article I Section 8.

Or, perhaps, funding is allowable, but legislation is not.

If we actually do want to limit the activities of the feds to specifically enumerated powers, all of that stuff has to go to the states, or simply go away. At least at the legislative level.

It's a long, long list.

"Speaking purely for myself, I wouldn't argue that "taxing some people to pay for stuff for other people" would be a matter of enabling that other person's "liberty". It might just be doing something useful or needful for that person."

But then there's the language of positive rights. The right, not to feed yourself, but to food, for instance. The right, not to seek an education, but to be educated. Liberal parlance abounds with examples of 'rights' which can only be effectuated by somebody else's action.

Liberal parlance abounds with examples of 'rights' which can only be effectuated by somebody else's action.

Noted. Hence the "speaking purely for myself" part in my comment.

I actually agree that framing every good or useful thing as a "right" is problematic. IMVVHO (note the two "V"s) it actually undermines what folks are trying to achieve, and kind of dilutes the concept of rights as well.

To me, it's sufficient to say that it's a very good thing for everyone to (frex) have food and access to education.

If we're going to insist that government's only responsibility toward individuals is to protect their rights, then as a tactical matter maybe it makes sense to try to make everything you think government should be doing as a right.

But -- speaking for myself only -- that's not something I would insist on. Quite the opposite.

It's funny. I was thinking about this thread on my way to work this morning, and I pretty much had in my own head the back-and-forth russell and Brett have been having. Maybe we've been through this before.

I landed almost exactly where russell did at 8:36 AM. Some of the things we want government to do are just good things that make living in this country better for almost everyone in some way or another, be it directly or indirectly, rights notwithstanding. What's phrase I'm looking for here? (It's not "gerbil warfare.")

Brett, I very much look forward to the day when your contributions to our shared conversations do NOT amount to an iron-clad insistence that every topic revolve around the monster under your bed.

Really, it's gone quite beyond straw-manning....

What's phrase I'm looking for here?

This could be the title of Russell's post. My take is that good faith progressives and liberals respect and share, in many respects, good faith conservatives' individual liberty concerns, problems with conflating "rights" with entitlements and the point at which doing good, in a progressive sense, intersects with diminishing returns. Plus, good faith progressives like civility and comity and other stuff that I'd like to think is also true for good faith, generic conservatives, which includes not jamming a policy notion down dissenters' throats.

Against this background, my sense is that Russell, HSH et al are looking for that defining turn of consensus-producing phrase/concept, analogous to individual liberty, that sums up the individual's obligations to the community in a way that most Americans will support. I don't think it exists, and, of course, I could be totally wrong about what I am imputing to Russell et al.

Which is why they think they're advancing liberty by taxing some people to pay for stuff for other people.

What would be the word for "taxing everybody to pay for stuff for everybody"?

But then there's the language of positive rights.

I think one thing that's problematic with postive rights is that they require means, which may not be available. Negative rights, of the form "The government won't prevent you from doing X," require only restraint.

So, if we're stuck with discussing entitlements or public goods in terms of rights, I'd very generally put it this way: To the extent that the government can and will provide X, everyone has an equal right to receive or use X. I'd add that X may be justified because, under certain not-unlikely conditions, one may be unable, in practical terms, by no fault of one's own, to exercise, fully or partly, some or all of one's guaranteed negative rights. What good are rights if, for example, you're dying needlessly from starvation or disease? That tends to put a damper on things, no?

my sense is that Russell, HSH et al are looking for that defining turn of consensus-producing phrase/concept, analogous to individual liberty, that sums up the individual's obligations to the community in a way that most Americans will support.

You read me correctly.'

I don't think it exists

I think you're right.

I don't think the issue is the language, however -- terms like commonwealth, public good, general welfare, all capture the basic concept perfectly well.

IMO the problem is a lack of consensus that that basic concept is a legitimate purpose for government, at least at the federal level. I don't think phrasing it differently will change that.

IMO the problem is a lack of consensus that that basic concept is a legitimate purpose for government, at least at the federal level.

My tweak: there is a widely held sense that the individual owes society/the community something. It's the what and, more to the point, to whom that produces the divide.

there is a widely held sense that the individual owes society/the community something. It's the what and, more to the point, to whom that produces the divide.

I find that encouraging, it's a sufficient basis for a conversation.

Thanks for the reply, McK, I appreciate it.

Russell--de nada

I've had conversations here on this board with people I would describe as not only not insane, but reasonable, wherein I was informed that the "general welfare" was synonymous not only with individual liberty, but with the free market.
My teriminology nitpicker wishes to speak up and mention that Obsidian Wings, and blogs, are not Bulletin Board Systems, aka BBSs, aka "boards" of any sort.

You may now carry on. I only mention it for the benefit of the common people, and the general welfare of all.

"I think one thing that's problematic with postive rights is that they require means, which may not be available. Negative rights, of the form "The government won't prevent you from doing X," require only restraint."

I don't think the problematic thing is so much that the means might not be available, as that the means might already be somebody else's, meaning obtaining them might require violating THAT person's rights. If you have a right to medical care, for instance, what just happened to the rights of medical care providers? Note how the 'right to an abortion' is leading to efforts to compel medical schools to teach abortion, and doctors to learn it.

Positive rights are the moral/ethical equivalent of division by zero in math; Admitting them leads directly to contradiction in any system of rights, by enabling you to construct situations where one right and another conflict. Whereas negative rights don't permit this.

My teriminology nitpicker wishes to speak up and mention that Obsidian Wings, and blogs, are not Bulletin Board Systems, aka BBSs, aka "boards" of any sort.

True. But then again, I still call CD's "records".

I'm an old dog.

Positive rights are the moral/ethical equivalent of division by zero in math; Admitting them leads directly to contradiction in any system of rights, by enabling you to construct situations where one right and another conflict. Whereas negative rights don't permit this.

Rights are often in conflict, positive or otherwise. It's the nature of things. Liberties even more so. Maybe legislating the right to a perfect world will solve this.

I don't think the problematic thing is so much that the means might not be available, as that the means might already be somebody else's,

This assumes that all wealth is strictly the result of the individual's effort - that the political, social, and economic structure of society contribute nothing.

How successful would the various tech giants be without the existence of public universities to train engineers and programmers for them to hire? How healthy would we be without government public health efforts and medical research? How much have county extension agents benefitted farmers? How much have lots of enterprises benefitted from being able to raise capital in at least somewhat honest capital markets?

The Randian (I guess) notion of the great man building wealth by virtue of his own heroic efforts, (and with only grunts for employees), is nonsense. Bill Gates may be a smart and energetic person, but the structure of US society (not to mention influential and well-off parents) played a big role in his susccess. The notion that asking him to contribute to the general welfare - to protecting others' positive rights - is somehow unjust doesn't make sense.

Here's my "aw, shucks" folksy allegory: Just 'cause you picked the apples doesn't mean you planted the trees. You can at least give back some of the seeds so we can plant some trees for the next guy.

From HSH:
"Maybe legislating the right to a perfect world will solve this."

Why ask what founders meant by GW? If you want to know what they meant find out what was the major problem of their time, that good organizing (govmnt) can solve. The most probable major problem of their time was securing the towns and roads for commerce and that would represent GW. At their time slaves weren't even a "problem". Given enough time as good organizing solves smaller and smaller problems of life in general slavery was recognized as general problem and it was solved.
Whoever asks what the founders meant wants to keep status quo of 18th century. Government is the top organizer of population to solve problems that can not be solved by an individual. In total absence of a government on a local level while under constant attack, someone will figure out and organize the populace for defense. That someone will become government and go on to solving next biggest problem of the town.
So the general welfare means solving the next biggest problem of a population that is presently recognized and can not be solved by an individual.
Given enough time GW will mean legislating a right to a perfect world, just as HSH said.

"How successful would the various tech giants be without the existence of public universities to train engineers and programmers for them to hire? How healthy would we be without government public health efforts and medical research? How much have county extension agents benefitted farmers? How much have lots of enterprises benefitted from being able to raise capital in at least somewhat honest capital markets?"

The follow on question is who does NOT have access to all of these societal benefits. Not ALL societal benefits, this doesn't address the "starting point advantages", these specific benefits are available to everyone.

So isn't there some credit to be given to those who do the right things to leverage them to create wealth?

So isn't there some credit to be given to those who do the right things to leverage them to create wealth?

Bernard used the example of Bill Gates. My understanding is that he's fabulously wealthy (Bill, not Bernard), so I'd say he's certainly gotten "some credit." I also think our tax structure is such that you'll never make less by making more, so there's always room to increase the credit you might get for your efforts without the government taking it away entirely, so there "some credit" even if you aren't Bill Gates.

I'm not sure if this addresses your question, Marty, but I gave it a shot.

What is the perfect world? What is the most common reference of a perfect world that most everyone has as a base for imagining it? Haven? Impossible cause mater and time constraints that will never be solved. Next best reference is Bible's Jesus words on rules to how achieve a perfect world. Next best reference is Communist Manifesto. Next best is Declaration of Independence.
Given enough time we will achieve the world of The US Constitution solving next biggest problem one at the time until more problems are recognized given the imagination limits based on previous references. And the government is there to solve them by organizing population, and that has to be paid for.

Bill Gates might be a poor example -- he seems fairly even-tempered when it comes to these questions.

Certainly there are much bigger whiners out there who believe their "rights" have been stolen from them.

Koch Brothers, anyone?

"Bernard used the example of Bill Gates. My understanding is that he's fabulously wealthy (Bill, not Bernard), so I'd say he's certainly gotten "some credit." "

He got a whole lot of money, and should pay a share in taxes. I guess I was trying to decouple that idea from the idea that those benefits, that are available to all, somehow diminishes his accomplishment in some way.

Hey, I was born on exactly the same day as Bill Gates, I have had exactly the same society to work within that he has for every day of our lives. I have to concede he worked more effectvely, if not harder, than I have to create financial success. Because, of course, I can't concede he is smarter, or maybe I just did.

I guess I was trying to decouple that idea from the idea that those benefits, that are available to all, somehow diminishes his accomplishment in some way.

I don't think anyone is trying to diminish his accomplishment so much as attempting to recognize the context in which he accomplished what he did. He's one of the best apple pickers in the orchard (not intended to imply that what he did was easy), no doubt about it. But the orchard was there before he showed up.

The real question is what problems can be solved by an individual and what problem can not be and it has to be transfered to government to solve.

Can an individual solve the problem of income, if it is too low for living. Theoretically yes but for himself only, but that job at that wage level will still be there and someone will occupy it. So the problem of non livable wage will be transferred, not solved, following Galtian logic. Only the govmnt can solve that problem following the logic of GW.
Can individual solve the health insurance problem in presence of numerous jobs with non livable wages. Some can, with a lot of lack and close support of others, but majority of sick will still be left out. SO the govmnt has to.
Can an individual solve the problem of corporate injustice if the individual have no millions to spend on lawyers? Extremely rarely, and its becoming more and more difficult.And all of that has to be paid for what govmnt does.

I have had exactly the same society to work within that he has for every day of our lives. I have to concede he worked more effectvely, if not harder, than I have to create financial success. Because, of course, I can't concede he is smarter, or maybe I just did.

You had the same society to work within? You mean your mother sat on the United Way board and spoke to her fellow board member who just happened to be the president of IBM, advocating for her son and his new company?

I think that complex outcomes like "X becomes a billionaire" are multicausal and by themselves don't tell you whether X was particularly smart or hard working. We live in a world where luck and connections (luck of the draw in selecting parents to be born to) matter in addition to hard work and skill.

Finally, I'd bet that Bill Gates would be a lot less wealthy if he ran his company in a more ethical manner. Ethics seems like another causal factor to add to the list.

I was born on exactly the same day as Bill Gates, I have had exactly the same society to work within that he has for every day of our lives. I have to concede he worked more effectvely, if not harder, than I have to create financial success. Because, of course, I can't concede he is smarter, or maybe I just did.

Turb beat me to it.

There are lots of reasons for Gates' success. His personal level of drive and ambition, his personal intelligence about building and running a business, and his personal appetite for work are all factors, but are not the only factors.

And whatever the value of his contribution, it's not only his contribution that made MS the success that it is.

Marty,

The follow on question is who does NOT have access to all of these societal benefits. Not ALL societal benefits, this doesn't address the "starting point advantages", these specific benefits are available to everyone.

So isn't there some credit to be given to those who do the right things to leverage them to create wealth?

Of course there is. The point is, though, that it's not all their doing, so suggesting that asking them to pay some taxes to contribute to the general welfare is hardly outrageous.

And yes, access to societal benefits are somewhat widespread, but far from universal. But without these general welfare expenditures access would be even more limited. That's the point.

Turbulence,

You had the same society to work within? You mean your mother sat on the United Way board and spoke to her fellow board member who just happened to be the president of IBM, advocating for her son and his new company?

IIRC, Gates also had lots of opportunities to learn programming, and earn money from it, even in high school. This was largely because he attended a private school where parents contributed to buy computer time, and some were influential enpough to offer opportunities to Gates and his pals.

I'm not calling Gates a whiner. He's certainly been generous with his wealth. But I am pointing out that his success was not exactly a result of his efforts alone, and that he had opportunities that most don't have.

On a smaller scale, I bet you'd find lots of similar examples. Also, you'd find examples of successful individuals who relied on things like public universities, loan programs, etc. to get started.

"Finally, I'd bet that Bill Gates would be a lot less wealthy if he ran his company in a more ethical manner. Ethics seems like another causal factor to add to the list."

I know that I could be better off financially if I didn't confuse personal ethics with business ethics, I am ok with that.

I recognize that he certainly had some advantages. But your BY's comment didn't doesn't address the "starting point advantages", as I noted.

But your BY's comment didn't doesn't address the "starting point advantages", as I noted.

Success is multicausal. All successful people rely on some things that are available to everyone (functioning capital markets, relatively non-corrupt courts, public universities) as well as some things that are not available to everyone. Examples of the later category include work ethic, drive, family connections, and plain old luck.

Marty, do you agree that Gates' success depends partially on his family connections and luck?

"Marty, do you agree that Gates' success depends partially on his family connections and luck?"

Me:

I recognize that he certainly had some advantages

and of course

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

from Ecclesiastes 9:11

I recognize that he certainly had some advantages

I'll take that as a yes.

Thanks for explaining Marty. I couldn't tell whether your 'had certain advantages' line was just a reference to the shared advantages available to everyone.

Sorry Turb, it was a yes.

To use a more prominent example: Could George Dubya Bush have become POTUS through his own efforts and talents alone without 'help' from family and connections through his family?
I think the line of POTUSes covers almost the complete spectrum from 100% selfmade to mere handpuppet.

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