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Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution gets a lot of attention in debates today, and rightly so. It lays out specifically the things that Congress has the power to do (such as levy taxes). Much of the modern controversy over what government can and cannot do devolves into a food fight about what Article 1 Section 8 implies.  And I don’t mean to suggest that this is not a valuable exercise.

But I urge in particular those of you who cherish private property, the rule of law and voluntary exchange to propose are far more fundamental thought to others when you are debating whether Congress has the authority to stop an Ohio wheat farmer from planting his own wheat, or a California resident from growing their own weed or requiring all of us to purchase health insurance.  Rather, I ask that you consider: “just because Congress does have the enumerated authority to do something doesn’t imply that they actually have to or should do something.” And for those on the opposing side of most of these arguments, why do you see it as a moral obligation for government to do something if only because the piece of paper says it can do it? I’d love to pursue the logical ends of such a line of thinking.

Where ever did such an argument go? Just because Congress, by virtue of a piece of paper, is authorized to run a post office does not in any way tell us that they should. This is the trap that my strict constructionist-literalist friends fall into. They seem to think that strict construction implies smaller government, and I do not see it that way at all. Which again takes us back to the fact that what we are all ever really debating about when we get all wonky about policy ideas is the appropriate role of government, and we just shroud it in all kinds of mystical rhetoric and symbolism.

I much prefer a good government, a limited government, that does the few things it does very well. And I am very willing to sacrifice some wealth to see that world, largely because I think a future world with these characteristics is a more moral one and a richer one. Those are my particular biases. But I am honest about them. And I’ll go one further and suggest that are not so much biases as much as: observations about how the world works, and value judgments about what I understand to be moral. I think the term bias means something else.

4 Responses to “On the Enumerated Powers of Congress”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    >> “just because Congress does have the enumerated authority to do something doesn’t imply that they actually have to or should do something.”

    Damned good point.

  2. Harry says:

    Even before I clicked through to Speedmaster’s comment, that was my impression too. WC gives us good raw meat, or tofu derived from Roundup-ready soybeans, to chew on.

  3. Alex says:

    Which few things do you have in mind? EITC funded by a carbon tax?

  4. Rod says:

    Doesn’t the Tenth Amendment say that unenumerated powers go to the states or the people. Emphasis on people.

    The Founders most certainly did not envision a strong federal government, and they deliberately gave deference to the states and to the people.

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