In September, Paul Scianna wrote a piece in The Kansas City Star in which he raised questions about whether the federal government should provide for the general welfare of the people. Quoting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Scianna asserts that the government should “promote the general Welfare,” but not have the responsibility of providing this welfare. Such responsibility, according to Scianna, falls to the private sector, to fellow citizens, to charitable organizations.
Given all that has happened politically in the last three months, it is a propitious time to revisit Scianna’s arguments. And let’s start by returning to the Constitution.
The question of the “general Welfare” is not restricted to the preamble. It also shows up in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Here, in the section that details the powers of Congress, the language is clear: “The Congress shall have Power to ... provide for the common Defense and general Welfare.”
The Constitution unflaggingly gives Congress the power (and I would argue the responsibility) to equally render, for/to the people, both defense and welfare. By yoking together common defense and general welfare, the Constitution emphasizes the urgency of both, as well as their interdependence.
While providing for the general welfare doesn’t mean the government should fulfill our every need, it does require that Congress be vigilant about identifying and providing those things that secure and advance our general welfare. Do interstate highways fall in this category? Space programs? National parks? It would seem so. And Congress has provided such programs.
But more germane to our general welfare are those things we all need for our well-being — health, education, housing and food, among other things. The federal government has invested in these types of programs for the last 50 years, and it should do so in the future. This line of argument suggests that we should insist that our government continue its commitments to Medicare and to providing health coverage for all (because, as a friend of mine struggling with cancer once told me, “Once you lose your health, you lose everything”).
I, for one, would like to see our Congress openly debate the question of what comprises our “general Welfare,” and I would like to see it enact legislation that would provide this welfare for us. My suggestion here is that Congress begin investigating the “general Welfare” by looking for those things that would damage the United States (and thereby compromise our general welfare) should they fail — those are the things that the government must provide and defend, and not entrust to the fail-prone private sector. Among these things are defense and money supply (which is why they are governmentally provided and not privatized). But there are other parts of our lives we must protect as essential to our “general Welfare.”
Let’s not forget that several of our states are actually Commonwealths — Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and Kentucky. These states remind us that government is meant to serve the people, to take care of the common good. Our Congress should not lose sight of its role in serving us, in providing for our “general Welfare.”
And we citizens need to do our part in keeping our government focused on us. We cannot let ourselves be distracted by Ronald Reagan’s view that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” Bear in mind that the government is ours: It is us. If the government is the problem, then we are the problem — because we have lost our focus on our commitment to one another, to our general welfare.
Thomas Stroik is an emeritus professor of English at UMKC. He has published six books on English language and linguistics, including work on syntax, the evolution of language and poetics.