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Sunday, August 7, 2011

General Welfare

That budget deal does very little to help the deficit, and a whole lot to start to hurt the nation in both the long and short term.  I'm waiting to see if Moody's downgrades the US too...in the meantime...

In the Constitution, the phrase "general Welfare" shows up, but what exactly does that mean?  Good question!  The authors did not explain, so we have to guess a bit.

After the Civil War, the nation had to go through Reconstruction, which involved two major efforts: rebuilding the damaged infrastructure and citizens of the Southern states, and figuring out what to do with the population of now freed slaves.  These were people without education, housing, money, etc., and they needed help.

So the US government stepped into the breach and began to provide support for the populations, both white and black.  Over time, former slaves were stripped of their rights and standings as citizens and returned to a status of slavery by another name. Southern states were re-built, and the economic business of the United States continued without the formal institution of slavery  But the trend of the government providing support for its citizens continued. This grew during the Great Depression as the government attempted to provide employment opportunities for those out of work, Social Security for the retired, and Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment checks for those who couldn't find work. Along the way the government also assumed the role of infrastructure builder (supplementing the states' efforts), took charge of energy provision, began to conserve the land and its resources, and began to get involved with the education of children, and the protection of the environment, among other things.

All the while, the government was living up to the clear Constitutional mandates for the government to provide for the common defense of the nation, and conduct diplomatic and economic relations with foreign nations...

Thus the "general Welfare" was defined through actions, not through Constitutional composition.  The question is: is all of this a reasonable expectation for a government? Is it the responsibility of government to care for all the people to the degree it now does?

Abe Lincoln, no stranger to the US government, referenced government "by the people, for the people and of the people."  But he stressed the word "people" in that phrase, not the prepositions.  This might be an important distinction to keep in mind thinking about the role that we the citizens expect of our governments.  In this day and age, it does seem that we stress the "for" first and foremost of the options, we pay lip service to the "of," and we ignore the "by." Sad, really...

However, I believe that the government must be invested in caring for the population.  I think it is appropriate to expect that government will take a somewhat paternalistic attitude toward its citizens; there is a place in the modern world for governmental support.  And in a capitalist economic setting, there will be those who fall behind in the marketplace, and I think that the government can and should step in to help those people out. But our government has over-extended itself and surpassed its budget;  never before has been so much been done for so many for so little revenue.  So what needs to happen? That'll be next...