On Taxation, Redistribution, and the “General Welfare”

In my last post I leaned heavily on “promot[ing] the general welfare” as justification for action by our government. This phrase is necessarily vague and calls for some clarification as to what I perceive as it’s boundaries. Jacob has offered what I would characterize as a conservative/libertarian reading. In his view, “the general welfare” implies more than a majority: the government’s actions must benefit “all law abiding citizens.” He rightly recognizes that this would “severely” limit government action. I would go a step further and call it crippling.

Practically speaking, all government taxation and spending is redistributive. The simple fact of geography alone guarantees this, since the government will have to spend more money in some areas than others for even basic things like guarding a boarder or keeping a port clear. Government offices aren’t placed equally in all cities. My tax dollars will go to pay for bridges and infrastructure that I may personally never use, even though their existence will benefit our economy as a whole and therefore promote our general welfare. The only way to have no redistribution would be to have no taxation. If we agree that not all government action is restrictive of liberty, then some level of taxation (and accompanying redistribution) must be acceptable.

Furthermore, I don’t think such a restrictive reading is necessary in order to preserve liberty. The Founders built all of the checks and balances into the Constitution so that an active government would be kept in appropriate check. If they had envisioned a basically inert government, they could easily have created a much weaker federal government with carefully circumscribed roles. Instead, they created a more robust federal government, albeit one where the levers of power would be difficult for any single faction to operate alone.

I think that it is fair to read the “general welfare” provision broadly as an appropriate motivation for government action. The phrase by itself does not grant licence for the government to do anything it likes. It is not an enabling provision granting extra-textual powers. But reading it as a limiting factor — as requiring that the federal government use its given powers only to implement non-redistributive policies that benefit all citizens equally (or all citizens according to their tax burden?) strikes me as far too narrow and certainly beyond the bounds of what the Founding generation did with the government they had just created.

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