The fifth element

What the Preamble says about promoting the general welfare

A friend recently e-mailed me a short but incisive essay by a man with the delightful name of Bangs Tapscott, whom he describes as “a retired professor of philosophy at the University of Utah (and fly fisherman, guitar picker, upright bluegrass bass player, fixer of clocks, and champion martini drinker).”

It’s a new year and a good time for pondering core values, so I’d like to pass on some of Tapscott’s trenchant thoughts.

His subject is the U.S. Constitution, and specifically the Preamble, which he was assigned to memorize in the eighth grade, as was I. For those of you who weren’t so blessed, the Preamble reads: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure 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.”

The Preamble, Tapscott writes, sets out the six overarching purposes or goals the framers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution: “Everything that follows in the Constitution is to be understood in the light of that Preamble.”

He’s particularly interested in the fifth of the elements: to “promote the general welfare.” This “central founding tenet of our nation” doesn’t oppose individual freedom—that’s included in the “blessings of liberty” mentioned in the sixth item—but states that “individual achievement must be consonant with what is best for the general welfare, not an alternative to it, and not something that counts more. All six count equally.

“The notion that government should actively work to provide general benefits to the people isn’t some wild-eyed Bolshevik, Socialist/Communist Foreign Notion,” Tapscott writes. “It’s part of the very founding of this country. It doesn’t come from Marx or Lenin. It comes from John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and others whose philosophies guided the founders of the U.S., and shaped their goals; not for a nation based on royalty and privilege, but one based on equality and mutual support.”

That’s why it’s appropriate, he continues, for government to regulate markets that, left unfettered, can damage the public welfare (as we’ve recently and vividly seen). That’s why government makes sure that old people don’t starve for lack of income and attempts to provide health care for all, including those who can’t afford it. That’s why it raises revenues from society at large—to promote the welfare of all—while recognizing that for-profit enterprises “lie at the heart of a flourishing economy.”

Tapscott’s essay was written in late September, just as the national debate over health-insurance reform was heating up, and “right-wing screamers,” as he calls them, were labeling President Obama a “socialist” and “communist” and other such distorted and ignorantly applied epithets.

“The next time you hear some fanatic screeching about ‘going back to the Constitution’ or ‘taking back our country,’ ask him what his views are on the fifth item in the Preamble,” he advises. “Chances are, he’ll say … ‘What?’”