Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Promoting the general welfare" -- it matters this election year

Only one candidate, Barack Obama, understand the necessity of promoting a healthy, prosperous populace

The founders of our nation had in mind a government that would be very minimal in scope of its powers. They saw fit, for a time, to enact a national charter that would limit what those elected to serve could obligate the states and the people to do, and if a state disagreed with a certain law, enforcement at the national level would be loose, at best.

That government was scrapped after less than a decade. It was replaced by the Constitution.

Few remember that the United States started out with the Articles of Confederation. Granting individual states veto powers seemed like a great limit on the national government, but in practice it wasn't feasible. For one, it granted smaller states with smaller populations unreasonably strong powers. In short, it was an anti-democratic, anti-representative ideal of limited federal powers.

The document that came replace the Articles most Americans are familiar with -- the U.S. Constitution. Yet, for all that it's been celebrated and heralded for, few have truly studied the document to a great extent. We hear many ideas about how it's supposed to limit the scope of federal power, about limitations that are placed on those who are meant to govern. Yes, those are a part of the great document. But refusing to accept that the government has powers, too, is a futile argument, one with serious consequences.

A libertarian might argue, perhaps, that the federal government doesn't have the power to help victims of storms like we saw hit the east coast this past week. Indeed, there isn't any mentioning of natural disasters in the Constitution.

Such strict interpretation of the document relies on ignoring a very important power that our founders left to us -- the "general welfare" clause, which is a broad but necessary provision for allowing lawmaking to be carried out in our nation.

In fact, the phrase "general welfare" is mentioned twice in the Constitution, within the preamble itself and within a provision granting Congressional powers to promote it.

The preamble:
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.
 And Article 1, Section 8:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

This historical lesson is necessary for what I'm going to discuss next. This election is about more than two men from distinctly different backgrounds. It's more than the out-of-context sound bytes, the radical notions that one is more extreme than the other, the belief that there is "class warfare," or the claims of patriotism or birthright that have come to make a mockery of our electoral system.

It's about whether we truly believe that there is a power in our governing for the promotion of happiness, a promotion of "general welfare" that's necessary to bring about the successes of our nation.

"General welfare" shouldn't be construed to mean welfare by the definitions the word holds today; rather, "general welfare" is understanding that we hold in our power the ability to promote a better life for the general public, to make even the poorest among us to have certain safeguards and protections.

Within a civilized society,  the promotion of "general welfare" means we cannot accept that we are separate from one another, recognizes that when disaster and tragedy strike (either from a horrific storm or unfortunate economic events that cripple everyone's wallets), something has to be done. It's the belief that, when we're able to do so, we must take care of those who are in peril, facing hardships, or other discriminatory prejudices due to their positions in life.

We have a political candidate in Barack Obama who recognizes what the promotion of such an ideal should look like. It doesn't mean trampling upon the rights of the wealthy to get your pet projects done; but it does mean asking them to contribute a little more when things get tough for American citizens. From health care, to the stimulus package, to education, and on a myriad of other issues, Obama has been on the right side of the issue, has promoted both the welfare of the people and the prosperity of the nation through his actions.

The opposing side has a candidate that doesn't find prosperity or the welfare of the people to be wrong, but rather sees no need to include a role for the government to contribute to society's needs. If an economic collapse occurs, if a hurricane devastates an entire region, or even something as simple as a young person facing challenges affording an education they have earned, guess what? Mitt Romney doesn't want taxpayer dollars contributing to any of those needs.

His solution? Let the market fix it. Or ask for money from your parents. Or let the states deal with it.

Those solutions have failed in the past, and they will fail again in the future. "States' rights" was a great moniker for conservatives this past decade, but it also served as a fabulous phrase in the 1850s plantation South. Borrowing money from your parents to go to school would work, too, if your parents could afford to do so. Many families simply cannot take on that challenge head-on. And while the marketplace is the main generator of everything great in our country, there ARE challenges it is simply not equipped to take on. It was the market, after all, that failed to do away with the practice of denying care to ailing patients with pre-existing conditions.

Promoting the general welfare doesn't mean we should spend money like a teenager with their parents' credit card -- but it does mean recognizing a significant role exists for the government to interject itself occasionally into the affairs of its people. When hardships abound, when people are in pain, when communities are destroyed by cataclysmic events that cannot be overcome by their will alone, something must be done.

The founders recognized this; and even in their own time, a great debate took place on the scope of the "general welfare" clause. But even they understood that promoting the welfare of the people, by supplying certain goods and fulfilling certain needs, was in the best interests of the people. Whether the evolution of general welfare within the federal government took 10 years or 100 years, it didn't matter. That provision was put in for a purpose: to relieve the people in times of hardships, and to aid those in need when they had nowhere else to go.

One candidate gets that; the other scoffs at it. Who you choose to vote for come November 6 will determine the direction our country goes, and whether we recognize that we're all in this together, or it's everyone for themselves.

Vote for President Obama. He deserves a second term in office for what he's done for the American people, both those in need and those without hardships.

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