The Foundations of My Constitutional Beliefs

Jacob asked me to explain why I think it’s acceptable for the federal government to get involved in health care, education, etc. In many ways, this gets to the central purpose of the whole blog, but I think it’s worth trying to give a more succinct answer to the specific issues he raised. So here is a brief primer on my own political views:

1. Government and freedom are not always opposites. More government doesn’t always mean less freedom or vice versa. In fact, I think the federal government can play a central role in protecting individual freedom from the tyranny of state majorities (see: desegregation) or the market (see: environmental and safety regulations). So I don’t automatically assume that the central goal should be the smallest possible government.

2. The preambles of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution expressions the purposes of our government.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (D. of I.)

The Declaration of Independence identifies three basic endowments. I accept the proposition that with this statement Jefferson et al were linking the purpose of government with these divine gifts: that correct government should both preserve and promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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. (U.S. Constitution)

Similarly, the Constitution lays out several positive ends of government. Within the limits established in the rest of the document, I think the federal government has a right and even an obligation to further these ends. It seems to me that education and health care, as two examples, fall comfortably within the charges to “promote the general welfare, and [to] secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Among the “blessings of liberty” is the economic strength provided by the capitalist market system.

3. A central purpose of the Constitution is to limit the actions of the federal government. In crucial respects, the Constitution is a deeply anti-democratic document. In many areas it places clear limits on what a majority can do, even in pursuit of the above-mentioned goals. For instance, even a majority in Congress cannot establish a state religion, remove the freedom of speech, or ban peacable assembly. One could imagine ways in which such actions might seem to further the goals of government (for instance, insuring “domestic tranquility”), but they are nonetheless off-limits.

Beyond these protections in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, each branch is also limited in its authority by the text of the Constitution. Among these are (for Congress) the power to tax, regulate commerce, and “provide … for the general welfare”. Finally, though it is not explicitly contained in the Constitution, I think the principle of judicial review — whereby the un-elected branch rules on the constitutionality of the acts of the other two — serves as an essential check to the majoritarian impulse.

4. The federal government, so limited, should be responsive to the dynamics of modern capitalism. Even the founders of the Constitution recognized the need for a “more perfect union” under a federal government that would have greater power to shape a national economy (through both taxation and regulation of commerce). Our economy is now far more integrated both nationally and internationally than it was 225 years ago. Fortunately, the Constitution contains adequate provision for the government to keep up with these changes. I see no reason why innovation should not continue within the framework established at its ratification.

For example, as I have previously argued, I think the United States would greatly benefit from a national health care system. A well-crafted system would take a significant step toward extending the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to more of our citizens. More specifically, it would fall within the Constitutional goals of “promot[ing] the general welfare, and secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” One of those blessings of liberty, in an advanced society such as ours, ought to be the blessing of basic health care for the preservation of life. Finally, the system should be established through use of Congress’s innumerated powers — which is why I favor a tax- and regulatory-based system rather than the present mandate.


I welcome your thoughts on these propositions. What have I missed in answering Jacob’s questions? What are your basic propositions about what the federal government can and should be able to do? Where do you think I am wrong? 

3 Responses to The Foundations of My Constitutional Beliefs
  1. Jacob Morgan
    June 13, 2012 | 12:56 pm

    I think this was my favorite of your articles. I enjoy basic beliefs and theories, as it becomes so much simpler to find the true points of disagreement. As you might have guessed, I do not disagree with 1 and 3. History has shown a good, strong government can provide more freedom, and I’d like to think that even the people who argue for smaller government aren’t disagreeing with this notion. (It is only what the government is doing with its size that is the issue).
    I believe our entire disagreement, which points us in drastically different directions, is the unfortunately vague term “for the general welfare”. Until reading over this, I didn’t know how to explain my view of it, now I see exactly our difference.
    My opinion is this: “general welfare” means the welfare of all law-abiding citizens. So any action of the government should either help or hurt all citizens in the same direction. The government can not be said to be acting for the “general welfare” by punishing some citizens at the expense of other citizens. Regardless of how many are in each group. In other words, general does not mean majority.
    I think this interpretation best fits with their known intentions, as well as serves to best protect from issues like slavery. Certainly the majority of Americans were better off as a result of slavery. For the government to end slavery, they were acting against the welfare of the majority, but they were creating a system where everyone was treated equal by the government.
    This severely limits what can be done under the notion of “general welfare” because there are very few things that affect every citizen in the same direction. And that’s the point, neither the declaration nor the constitution contains any kind of a “blank check” for the government. Quite the opposite actually. With that in mind, it seems like a peculiar interpretation to then say that this one statement goes against everything else they were writing about, giving the government unlimited abilities so long as it bettered a majority of the people in the country.

    In more specific words, You cannot take money from one citizen and give it to another. This does not promote the general welfare, but rather creates a slavery style set up. The citizen paying higher taxes is in no way better off, the government is not acting for their general welfare. They become a ‘slave’ to the government – forced to work for the benefit of others by the force of others (the threat of jail for not paying taxes is certainly a force).

    And take it back to the declaration litmus test, promoting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The citizen with the higher taxes has less liberty and is less capable of pursuing happiness.

    I understand that the argument is ‘they still have “enough” liberty, and still have “some” ability to pursue happiness’. But the declaration does not say that. The purpose of the government is to preserve (and I think preserve is a more appropriate word than promote) man’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government is not supposed to take some liberty from one citizen and give it to another, and take some life from one citizen and give it to another.
    I cannot see how that can ever be supported.

    • Jason
      June 14, 2012 | 8:43 am


      Again, thanks for your comments. I’ve got two posts coming in response – on the general welfare and on slavery.

      But I’m also curious about your reference to “the citizen paying higher taxes.” From a policy standpoint, how do you measure this? Are we talking absolute terms: that everyone should be responsible for x dollars regardless of ability to pay? Or are we talking about a flat tax rate: that everyone pays x% of their income?

      If (as I suspect) your answer is a flat percentage rate, perhaps you could explain why you understand that to be the reasonable basis for “equal” taxation. Why not have the tax rate set on an exponential slope instead? Since we pay for other necessities at a fixed rate, I think there’s a reasonable argument that 10% of a multi-millionaire’s income is much less of a tax burden than 10% of the minimum-wage earner’s. A graduated rate (with a smooth curve) would still leave more money in the pockets of higher income earners, maintaining the profit incentive. So it seems to me just a matter of how much incentive one thinks we need to maintain compared with ability to pay.

      Also, do you support the flat rate for all monetary increase, including things like capital gains, or only for wage/salary income? If the latter, why should certain classes of economic gain (mostly going to the wealthy) receive special exemptions in terms of individual tax contributions?

      Sorry to get so policy-specific on you. But I’d appreciate hearing your answers and didn’t want to launch into a tax post based on assumptions.


      • Jacob Morgan
        June 15, 2012 | 9:01 pm

        Your question, and guesses at my thoughts, made me quite happy. I don’t ever hear any mention, EVER, about a flat cost. And that thought clarifies so much(in my mind at least).
        Though I know it can never and will never happen – Yes, in a perfect world I would support a flat “x amount of dollars” tax.
        My reason is simple. If I choose to be a doctor, or a pauper, is none of the government’s business. If I accept a service from the government (be it education, police protection, etc.) then I should be expected to pay for the cost of that service. Plain and simple, I receive a service, I pay for it.
        That said, can’t happen, won’t happen. There are too many issues with it (what about handicapped people, retired people, etc.) These people cannot opt out of these services, but cannot pay them.
        But spending time thinking about it illustrates the point that the government provides services, and we pay them for those services. I think that thought is the appropriate basis for tax discussions.

        So, on to the lesser evils. Yes I currently, in this imperfect world, support a fixed percentage rate of income. I do not like to think of money as dollar bills. I like to think of money as a representation of my labor.
        Again, the government shouldn’t be entitled to care about what I do for a living. If I choose to be a farmer, a shoe shiner, brain surgeon. It shouldn’t be entitled to treat me different based on my choices. Everyone should be treated equal.

        For example, the tax rate we will say should be 20%. And it isn’t related to how much money I make. What the government is saying is “Everyone works 1 day out of 5 for the general support and maintenance of the nation. Noone works more than 1 day, no one works less than 1 day.”
        What could promote citizenship more than the knowledge that everyone works the exact same amount “from each according to his ability.” See, even the communists should agree..
        It isn’t, and shouldn’t, be about saying “high income people still have enough money to live a comfortable life.” I don’t think of it in terms of trying to equalize everyone’s burdens and lifestyles. I solely think of it in terms of true equality-everyone is treated the same. Additionally, I don’t think the government should be interested in trying to take as much as possible without affecting incentives. Because that is all just opinion that changes with each election. The government should be about FREEDOM. A land where the government doesn’t treat me different based on how much money I make. A land where everyone is equal and treated equal. Everyone works 1 day out of 5. No matter what you do, no matter who you are. The rich get no special privileges, the poor get none either. Everyone is equal.

        I can see both sides of the argument for a capital gains tax, but lean more towards the opposition of it. Imagine 2 people make 1 million dollars. 1 of them blows it all on cars, vacations, etc. The other person invests it in a business – risks losing their hard earned money – and gets lucky and makes money. Why should that person pay more to the government due to being MORE responsible and helping the overall economy MORE. Once money is made, everyone should be given freedom to do anything with that money that they choose to do. Noone has any money right now that hasn’t already been taxed through the income tax. Maybe they paid it, maybe their parents paid it. But no matter what the case, it’s already been taxed once. Let’s all have the freedom to do with our after tax dollars whatever we choose to do.