The General Welfare Clause: Limited Government is About More than Dogmatism

The predominant belief among the Founding Fathers was that the General Welfare clause of the Constitution did not allow the federal government to perform any act or collect any amount of money for whatever it deemed to be the general welfare. That belief, though, was not unanimous among the Founders. However weak the case might be, nonetheless a case can be made, based on the beliefs of such Founders as Alexander Hamilton, that very broad powers are granted to the federal government when it comes to providing for the general welfare.

This reality requires us to defend the "limited" view of General Welfare powers not just as a matter of Constitutional principle, because those who make the opposing case do so using the same Constitution and the words of other Founding Fathers. Those who make the opposite case see our "principle" as mere dogmatism. Our case is made much stronger, then, if we can defend the limited view of the General Welfare Clause from a pragmatic perspective. In other words, many more people will rally to our cause if we can show that our perspective makes sense. Never fear, however--that is becoming increasingly easy to do.

Prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have masterfully made the pragmatic case that the General Welfare Clause, when interpreted broadly, eventually brings social ruin. Empirical evidence is mounting that indicates that they are right.

President Woodrow Wilson once said: "The history of liberty is a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it." Why, then, has government power--particularly of the federal sort--continued to increase by leaps and bounds in the United States? Leaders of the LDS Church have noticed this problematic tendency and have called attention to the dangers of it.

In his speech entitled The Constitution, a Heavenly Banner, President Ezra Taft Benson stated that
The important thing to keep in mind is that the people who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they, themselves, have in the first place."
Some have interpreted Benson's statement as meaning that he couldn't imagine the federal government performing any role much beyond defending its citizens. In the above statement, Benson spoke about a Constitutional principle. Benson's opinion in this regard, however, is seen by some--members of the LDS Church as well as non-members--to be pure dogmatism. Benson didn't just speak to the Constitutional principle of limited government, though. In other places, Benson spoke of the pragmatism (or practicality) of such a view. He said, for example:
Before we embark on such programs of federal aid for an ever-widening range of social and economic services...we should ask ourselves these questions:

1. Can the federal government perform these services more efficiently than private enterprise, or states, or local communities?

2. What would be the effect on our free institutions?

3. What would be the effect on the morale and character of our people?

If the honest and carefully considered answers to these questions point to the launching of federal programs, then these programs can be of great service.

If, however, these proposed programs contemplate a high degree of federal financing and decision-making;...if they [try to inflame] partisan politics; if they weaken the morale and character of our people—then, on the basis of the record, their prospects are not good.
In a speech entitled Eternalism vs. Secularism, LDS Church apostle Neal A. Maxwell explained why, with the wrong sort of General Welfare, our "prospects are not good":
Eternalism focuses on changing the individual by teaching him correct principles. Secularism tends to deal increasingly with adjustments outside man. The wrong kind of help isn’t really helpful; it is often harmful, for “solutions” become problems. Good motives...can also produce the results (now decried by almost all) such as we our public welfare programs. According to one writer, “Many liberal urban economists and sociologists plainly and simply started to question whether welfare is really good for people …” and “urbanologists have been having similar qualms over the effect of welfare on the family structure. …”
Why do governmental welfare solutions nearly always fail? Because government solutions almost always pretend to usurp the moral authority that works most effectively when it is left in the hands of individuals--and more often than not, individuals allow themselves to be stripped of their moral obligations by government.
Secular efforts have tried over the centuries and in many ways to redistribute wealth; ...human systems of redistribution are temporary, for after a short period of time wealth is once again back into the hands of the few. Human systems do not seem to be able to deal very effectively with the challenge of poverty, either, for that matter. Eternalism[, on the other hand,] focuses on values and behavior which, where followed, result in either enlightened use of wealth or...where the lines between rich and poor were dissolved by the warmth [of] righteousness...
Governments almost invariably fail to improve man's economic situation, because governments almost invariably think of man as beast rather than as a God in embryo. Maxwell continues:
Eternalism opts for conditions that facilitate true individual growth, letting the consequences of any successes ripple outward. Secularism tends to want to deal increasingly with systems, governments, labels, groups, etc.—with adjustments [made only] in the things outside man...

Eternalism sees the individual and his potential as one might view an acorn and the subsequent forest. Secularism sees the individual as a very important and very real, but temporary, phenomenon in the cosmic landscape...

If we are not able to build into ourselves and our families the brakes of self-restraint and self-discipline, we are apt, unwittingly, to create tyranny in our government or anarchy in our citizenry. If we push onto the government the management not only of our economy, but also the management of our morals, the civil servants of the future will be neither civil nor servants.
It's all a matter of perspective:
Secularism, in its effort to build a modern Babel, finds itself erecting elaborate scaffolding, whereas eternalism stresses simplicity. Indeed, God has taught from the beginning by the projecting of simple positive and negative consequences as a means of aiding man in his choices here in life. Only occasionally does secularism attempt to project the human consequences of its policies and programs.
. . .

Regardless of what a minority of America's Founders may have thought about any broad general welfare powers the federal government might have, pragmatism now dictates that it doesn't matter. The United "States"--collectively and separately--are up to their eyeballs in debt caused by a failure to understand the pragmatism of limited government. Benson often quoted the following maxim of good government:
Under any name, socialism has been a miserable failure for 1,000 years. A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.

President Ezra Taft Benson also said of the Constitution that
The powers the people granted to the three branches of government were specifically limited. The Founding Fathers well understood human nature and its tendency to exercise unrighteous dominion when given authority. A constitution was therefore designed to limit government to certain enumerated functions, beyond which was tyranny.

Benson's statement not only makes sense from the perspective of what a majority of America's Founders understood the Constitution's General Welfare Clause to mean. It also makes eminent sense in the hindsight brought to us by the pragmatic lessons of today.

Much of the prophetic wisdom of Ezra Taft Benson, Neal A. Maxwell, and many other leaders of the LDS Church regarding limited government powers came at a time when federal deficits were minuscule compared to what they are today, and when state budget deficits were virtually non-existent. Today, very large states, such as California and Massachussetts, are on the verge of ruin because they failed to adhere to the pragmatic warnings of statesmen at the helm of the LDS Church, as well as others. More ironically, these states think that the federal government is the lifeline to carry them away from the brink of disaster. Before the problem of state debt paralysis had hardly begun to manifest itself, Ezra Taft Benson warned that
The thought that the federal government is wealthy and the states poverty stricken is a dangerous illusion. The federal debt in the United States is now sixteen times as great as the combined debt of the fifty states. [Forty-five years later that ratio is undoubtedly much higher.] It is difficult for the states to make a strong case for assistance from the federal government when anything the federal government spends must [first] come from the states.

The majority of the Founders understood the Constitution to be limited in the way that Benson described above. But since this view is not unanimously held by interpreters of the Constitution's meaning, statesmen like Ezra Taft Benson and Neal A. Maxwell have made the compelling case that if we don't accept the principle of limited government, pragmatism prognosticates that we will die by national suicide.


  1. First Hamilton and Washington did not call for unlimited government, so that is a straw man. Secondly there is no reason why we can't promote government-based eternalist measures. If welfare of any kind were wrong and "secularist" by nature we wouldn't have a church welfare program. If it were, the danger to the character of the people would be identical to the danger brought about by a civil program. It's simply a matter of crafting good policy. Once again the ball is in our court as citizens to hash out how we want to be represented. What government has the right to do and the question of fiscal responsibility are two different things. California is in the situation it is in because it spent more than it brought in, not because it didn't adhere to someone's vague idea of what constitutes "small" governmnet.


Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting. If you have a Google/Blogger account, to be apprised of ongoing comment activity on this article, please click the "Subscribe" link below.

Popular posts from this blog