When we allow the federal government to exercise undelegated powers for “good things,” it also opens the door for it to do “bad things.”
James Madison warned us about this.
The issue was federal authority to build roads and canals, or more generally to fund “internal improvements.” Madison insisted the federal government lacked the constitutional power to undertake these projects. In fact, his last act as president was to veto an internal improvements bill. Although he supported the idea, and thought it would be beneficial for the federal government to build roads and canals, he refused to authorize it without a constitutional amendment.
But Madison’s veto didn’t end the matter. Nearly a decade later, Congress was still trying to push through internal improvement bills based on an expansive reading of the general welfare clause. (Click HERE for an explanation of what this clause actually means.) With the election of John Quincy Adams, it seemed likely such a measure would soon be passed.
Complicating matters was the fact that the majority of Americans supported the idea. Madison warned that even so, allowing the federal government to move forward with internal improvements would ultimately unravel the very fabric of the Constitution.
In a letter to Thomas Richie dated 18, December, 1825, Madison observed that, “All power in human hands is liable to be abused.” It’s therefore critical to maintain barriers against it. He said Virginia should make clear it opposes “measures violating her constructions of the Instrument” appealing to “the universal understanding that the Govt. of the Union was a limited not an unlimited one; to the inevitable tendency of the latitude of Construction in behalf of internal improvements, to break down the barriers against unlimited power; it being obvious that the ingenuity which deduces the authority for such measures, could readily find it for any others whatever.”
In other words, if we buy into the rationalizations floated to justify internal improvement (or whatever “good” thing you want the federal government to do), the federal government will use those same rationalizations to justify anything else it wants to do in the future. The barriers will have been erased. Government power has escaped from its limits.
Sadly, Americans haven’t heeded Madison’s warning to this day. People always want “their guys” to expand power, ignoring the fact it will inevitably be turned against them when the “other guys” get control.
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