The Preamble to the United States Constitution states
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.
The various states form a Union under a federal government that has significant powers and responsibilities. There was disagreement even in the 1780s between small-government and big government proponents, and the US Constitution calls for a balance between individual (negative) rights and an activist government that promotes the general welfare, reflecting the differing opinions of the small-government Jeffersonians and the big-government Federalists. Alexander Hamilton, for example, favored a broad interpretation of the General Welfare Clause, granting substantial powers to Congress to tax and enact laws promoting the general welfare. James Madison favored a narrower interpretation.
The Preamble’s mention of general welfare is supplemented by a more specific, and more authoritative, clause 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.
See this exposition, where it says, “To date, the Hamiltonian [broad] view of the General Welfare Clause predominates in case law.”
It is clear to all but committed anarchists that too little government leads to a dangerous state of anarchy or plutocracy (rule by the wealthy and powerful), while too much government leads to dictatorship. One can use the Constitution (like the Bible) to justify almost any view you want. In this essay I argue that most of the talk nowadays about small government and low taxation is just a smokescreen to justify corruption, mismanagement, stupidity, and concentration of wealth. The anti-government rhetoric is an effort to undo 200 years of General Welfare precedent.
Justice depends on adequately funded and independent police, courts, and regulatory agencies. If corporations are allowed to pollute the air and water, to sell defective and dangerous goods, and to promote pseudo-science unchallenged, then there is injustice. If our foods are filled with toxins, antibiotics, and pesticides, then there is injustice and poor general Welfare. If Wall Street speculators are allowed to hawk deceptive investments that they know to be bad deals, then there is injustice. If lenders burden homeowners with loans they cannot afford, then there is injustice. If the bankers and speculators whose mismanagement led to the sub-prime crash are rewarded with bailouts, while struggling homeowners are saddled with foreclosures, then there is injustice. If only the rich and the powerful have the money to buy justice, then there is injustice. If corporations like GE, Microsoft, and Boeing are allowed to earn billions in profits, while paying little or nothing in taxes, then there is injustice. If corporations and the rich are allowed to buy elections and politicians, then there is injustice. If insurance fraud, cyber-crime, credit card fraud, and other white-collar crime are allowed to run rampant — and they certainly are — then there is injustice.
Domestic tranquility depends on regulation of the excesses of the market system, on low unemployment, on public health, on public transportation, and on just distribution of wealth. If the richest 1% of Americans control Congress and the media and write laws that assure continued concentration of wealth and power, then there can be no domestic tranquility. If corporations are encouraged to ship jobs and profits overseas, then there can be no domestic tranquility. If there is welfare for the rich, and layoffs and service cuts for the middle class and the poor, then there will be little justice and little domestic tranquility.
We all know about the common defense. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of war-mongering and of allowing the military and spy agencies to collect ever greater influence and powers. But like it or not, we have to pay for the common defense. Calls for low taxation ignore the need to pay for such obligations. If you really want to support the troops, pay your fair share in taxes.
The general Welfare depends on common sense efforts by government to protect the public health; on defense against natural and man-made disasters; on sane economic and energy policies; on quality education for all our children (which means either public education or subsidized education for the poor); on adequate regulation of industry; and, I contend, on highly regulated or single-payer healthcare that, overseas, provide higher quality medical care at a fraction of the cost of America’s corrupt and inefficient market-based system.
Everyone benefits from smart, well-managed, uncorrupted government programs for health, education, science, conservation, industrial policy, and recreation (parks, playgrounds, and wilderness areas). Everyone benefits from stringent fuel-mileage standards on automobiles and from carbon taxes. Public funding of election campaigns is smart: it’s worth the investment, since private funding leads to corruption. Same with publicly funded journalism: the small up-front cost is more than offset by great gains later on. (See How to Save Journalism and Why we need public financing of investigative journalism.) These are just a few examples of the benefits of government. See Government is Good and Government is Great for more examples.
And yet a fundamental principle of conservatism nowadays is that government is inefficient, wasteful, corrupt, and despotic. Unfortunately, it often is all these things, especially when Republicans control government! They like it when government fails and serves special interests. Then they benefit both from the kickbacks they receive and from citizens’ disgust at the wastefulness of government.
Yes, government is often corrupt. But the solution isn’t to do away with government. The solution is to fight corruption and work for good government.
Many conservatives espouse the extreme libertarian view that the only function of government should be to protect private property rights. Such conservatives want to return to an extremely narrow interpretation of the General Welfare Clause.
The real reasons many conservatives love to hate government is that they don’t care about the general Welfare. They care only about their private profits. They don’t want regulations that would cut into their profits, and they don’t want to pay their fair share in taxes. That’s not patriotic. That’s not American. (Or if it is, it’s only half the story.) Ayn Rand says that selfishness is admirable. We know better. Libertarianism unbalanced by a concern for the general welfare is sociopathic.
True Liberty is different from the freedom to cheat, pollute, corrupt, and avoid taxes. Many government programs are just common sense initiatives to establish certain public goods that the market system cannot provide. Forgoing such initiatives is plain stupid. Other government programs reflect our moral values: a just society has an obligation to care for its weakest members.
The benefits that certain people get from corruption, from deregulation, from privatization, and from tax loopholes are focused: they accrue to particular groups. Those groups do their utmost to deceive the public. Cynical, demagogic politicians know that a clever way to get the support of voters is to say, “Vote for me. I’ll lower your taxes.” But given the realities of the current unfair tax system, increasing concentration of wealth, unsustainable national debt, historically low tax rates, crumbling infrastructure, substandard education, and rampant injustice, we need more good government and higher taxes on the rich. Most of the talk about “small government” and “low taxation” is a distraction from the real issues: corruption, mismanagement, and concentration of wealth.
On the other hand, the benefits people get from good government programs are diffuse and are shared by everyone. So the benefits are hard to see. (Think “public goods.”) People want government services but don’t want to pay taxes. By voting for anti-tax candidates and initiatives, the voters vote against their own self-interest and allow the rich to avoid paying their fair share. The People have been convinced by decades of right wing propaganda, corruption, and mismanagement that government does not and cannot serve their interests.
The founders could not have foreseen the complexities of our current age and the more pressing needs for government activism. Thanks to government we have the Internet, seat belts, contract law, pollution controls on cars and factories, childhood immunization, and public transportation. Without the government to come to the rescue from the 2008 crash, we would now be in a depression. In fact, without government protections and services, corporations could not function at all. See Government is like a Computer’s Operating System.
Haters of government are in fact selfish and unpatriotic. How can America be strong if its government is weak and in debt? Their talk of small government and low taxation is just a smokescreen to hide their real interest: promoting their private welfare and shortchanging the general Welfare. In the name of Liberty and Freedom, they call for minimal government and low taxation. But that is not the vision of Liberty of our founders. Our founders knew that Liberty needs to be balanced with an uncorrupted activist government that promotes Justice, the common defence, and the general Welfare. Our founders realized that a strong central government has a crucial role in securing the Blessings of Liberty. The alternatives to a strong government are anarchy, corruption, stupidity, and plutocracy. There’s no magic hand that in the marketplace that will prevent injustice and promote the general welfare.
It’s time to market good government and fair taxation.
(I’ve created the website The General Welfare to promote these ideas.)