Dueling Quotes

On Libertarians, I previously wrote that “now, if I could just make Libertarians realize that sometimes we’re all better off when the government puts its hands in our pockets (you know: “form a more perfect Union”; “promote the general Welfare”)”. Now Amy Phillips comes at me with this quote from James Madison:

“If Congress can apply money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may establish teachers in every State, county and parish, and pay them out of the public Treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may undertake the regulation of all roads, other than post roads. In short, everything, from the highest object of State legislation, down to the most minute object of policy, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I have mentioned would admit the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.”

Ouch! Direct hit! Quick, to The Federalist Papers!

…The SIXTH and last class consists of the several powers and provisions by which efficacy is given to all the rest. 1. Of these the first is, the “power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.” Few parts of the Constitution have been assailed with more intemperance than this; yet on a fair investigation of it, no part can appear more completely invulnerable. Without the SUBSTANCE of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter.
Federalist #44 (Madison)

Hamilton also argued in favor of a broad interpretation of “necessary and proper” (more quotes here). Amy’s quote above was in reference to the 10th Amendment, the interaction of which with the “necessary and proper” clause has been the subject of debate from the earliest days of the Constitution to the present. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were striving mightily to gather support for the Constitution. Against this were fears of the not so distant monarch, distrust of central authority, and the Anti-Federalists. Notwithstanding this challenge, Jay, Madison, and Hamilton viewed any loose confederation as doomed to fail, proposing instead that broad powers be vested at the Federal level. In The Federalist Papers, originally published as a series of essays in New York papers, they codified and systematized their arguments. So the quote enumerating the perils of unchecked federal government appears to be an argument to encourage the states to ratify the Constitution, by arguing that the 10th amendment (“…reserved to the states…”) would prevent such incursions (This interpretation seems supported by Amy’s source for the Madison quote).

Back to Madison, he immediately follows the second quote above with a discussion of alternative ways of assigning authority to the Federal government, rejecting each in turn, and concluding,

We have now reviewed, in detail, all the articles composing the sum or quantity of power delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, and are brought to this undeniable conclusion, that no part of the power is unnecessary or improper for accomplishing the necessary objects of the Union. The question, therefore, whether this amount of power shall be granted or not, resolves itself into another question, whether or not a government commensurate to the exigencies of the Union shall be established; or, in other words, whether the Union itself shall be preserved.
Federalist #44 (Madison)

Many widely respected Founding Fathers were Anti-Federalists, notably Patrick Henry, but the Federalists–most famously, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Franklin–carried the day. Punchline: Broad federal powers to provide for common defense and the general welfare. That said, absent a compelling reason, the federal government should stay out of lives and markets. Where it initially finds a reason to intervene, such as positive or negative externalities, it should frequently reevaluate whether continued interference is warranted.