Welfare or liberty? The decision marks an unfortunate choice the American government routinely makes for its citizens. More unfortunate still is that America’s leaders fail to ask themselves a necessary question: Why not choose both?
“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.”
Many don’t read the Constitution after leaving middle-school, forgetting it serves as a lifeline to citizens’ rights and a checklist of the government’s responsibilities . The preamble outlines these roles. Government in the U.S. is charged with establishing a judicial system, providing a military for national defense, promoting general welfare, and protecting liberty. Republicans and Democrats alike frequently mistake the second pair of responsibilities as optional – an oversight necessitating an analysis of the terms “general welfare” and “liberty”. The Patriot Act and the regulation of citizens’ personal finances through unnecessary taxes demonstrate the repercussions of such oversight. Upon understanding their implications, the prioritization of the four roles should be considered.
General Welfare: the common good.
We may define general welfare as the power given to Congress 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.” Here the Constitution outlines for what purposes Congress may tax the people of the United States. While “the common defense” seems specific enough, the idea of “general welfare” appears ambiguous at first read. First, “general” supports the idea that it is more than a single person or group which should receive such benefits. Second, the wording indicates that the states are the specific subject of such tax provisions. This idea of general welfare applies to the states as a whole. The government exercises its support for the general welfare through projects such as improving our infrastructure. According to the Patriot Act of 2001, infrastructure includes “systems and assets…so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security.” These refer to things such as roads and the post system – which are systems that are available for members of American society to use freely without reasonably impacting the ability for others to use them as well. Creating beneficial programs does not seem too daunting a task. Creating programs which do not infringe on the peoples’ liberty, however, proves more difficult.
Liberty: the quality or state of being free.
The preamble more specifically defines liberty: “to ourselves and our posterity” (posterity referring to future generations). Freedom allows individuals to strive after their full potential People who aren’t free have much less chance to thrive; they must follow the path set out for them. Freedom, which improves competition in the economy (unless considering the case of monopolies), allows those who cater to the needs of others to experience success. It rewards those who go above and beyond with success and economic prosperity. Seeking freedom from persecution, the American ancestors valued liberty as inherently necessary for a “more perfect union” as the preamble states.
The government must promote the general welfare of United States citizens while simultaneously securing their liberty in order to comply with their constitutionally-outlined duties. The Patriot act is an example of the government acting to preserve the general welfare, while placing American liberties on hold. As the FBI wiretaps into Americans’ phone lines, they are required to accept such infringement for their own well-being.
In America’s two-party system, both parties believe they hold the key to general welfare, while both selectively choose which securities of liberty to prescribe. There are examples of both fighting for liberty while simultaneously bypassing it. Democrats cry foul about Americans’ lack of reproductive liberties while encouraging increasingly strict firearm laws. Republicans scream the sky is falling at the whiff of a tax hike while insisting that our population shouldn’t be trusted to make up their own minds about marijuana.
Both parties undoubtedly lack consistency, yet the many party enthusiasts expect that any person should be a Republican or a Democrat, unwaveringly. American voters ought to consider these inconsistencies and challenge the party assumptions. They should investigate the Constitution’s functions for the government and vote accordingly with those leaders who pledge to carefully fulfill all, not part, of their roles in the government.
At the end of the day, the American government attempts to control the economic system while simultaneously passing numerous regulations which limit, not liberate, its people. Perhaps the Democrats have it right, saying the government shouldn’t dictate who can marry. Meanwhile, the Republicans make a point, that government subsidies reduce the consumer’s impact in the market due to the push for the weaker of competitors to survive. Neither side has a clear track record on liberty. It’s time that America’s leaders rediscover their middle-school copies of the Constitution, reread their duties to the United States, and re-evaluate whether their choices are truly helpful and respectful towards their constituents’ liberty.