A careful reader will note that “general welfare” did not mean aid to some at the expense of others, as James Madison was quick to point out in Federalist 41:
Following modern-day proponent’s of General Welfare, the national government has unlimited authority to do anything it defines as General Welfare. This is impossible. Madison points out that the phrase is found in the Articles of Confederation, and it has a particular meaning:
Article III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
You can see by how “general welfare” is used to mean what applies to everyone generally and has nothing to do with wealth redistribution which a national healthcare care program would be. You can find similar uses of “general welfare” in Articles VIII and IX. Madison continues:
Construe either of these articles by the rules which would justify the construction put on the new Constitution, and they vest in the existing Congress a power to legislate in all cases whatsoever. But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare? I appeal to the objectors themselves, whether they would in that case have employed the same reasoning in justification of Congress as they now make use of against the convention. How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!
The modem concept of general welfare is most often defined in terms of wealth redistribution where some members of society (“the rich”) are taxed heavily in order to benefit the “welfare” of others (“the poor”). General welfare, according to the Constitution, means welfare that benefits everybody more or less equally. This can be clearly seen in providing “for the common Defense.” Taxes collected to defend the nation benefit everybody generally. Taxing some people so other people can have decent housing or an education or healthcare is not general welfare; it’s particular welfare.
- The Federalist No. 41: General View of the Powers Conferred by The Constitution, No. 41 (January 19, 1788).