Congress lacks constitutional authority for most of what it does
During winter months, I work out 10 minutes on the treadmill and lift weights at seven stations four mornings a week. Over the years, during the spring through fall months, I racked up about 2,000 miles on my road bike. This level of exercise helps account for why, at 73 years, I'm in such good health and physical fitness. So my question to you is whether you think regular exercise is a good idea. I think the answer is definitely yes, if nothing other than its beneficial effects on health-care costs. Since exercise is a good idea, would you support a congressional mandate that all Americans engage in regular exercise?
Instead of simply saying, "Williams, you're a lunatic!" and rejecting such a congressional mandate out of hand, let's ask why it should be rejected. We should keep in mind that there's precedent for congressionally mandated measures to protect our health and safety. Seat-belt and helmet laws are examples. If you're in an accident and wind up a vegetable, you will be a burden on taxpayers; therefore, it's argued, Congress has a right to mandate seat-belt and helmet usage. Wouldn't the same reasoning apply to people who might burden our health-care system because of obesity or sedentary lifestyles? If it is a good idea for Congress to force us to buckle up and wear a helmet on a motorcycle, isn't it also a good idea to force us to regularly exercise?
There is only one question to ask were there to be a debate whether Congress should mandate regular exercise. Whether regular exercise is a good idea or a bad idea is entirely irrelevant. The only relevant question is: Is it permissible under the Constitution? That means we must examine the Constitution to see whether it authorizes Congress to mandate exercise. From my reading, the Constitution grants no such authority.
You say, "Aha, Williams, you've blown it this time. What about Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which says Congress shall provide for the 'general welfare of the United States.'? Surely, healthy Americans contribute to the nation's general welfare." That's precisely the response I'd expect from your average law professor, congressman or derelict U.S. Supreme Court justice. Let's look at what the men who wrote the Constitution had to say about its general welfare clause. In a letter to Edmund Pendleton, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one ..." Madison also said, "With respect to the two words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators." Thomas Jefferson said, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated."
If you compare the vision of our nation's founders to the behavior of today's Congress, White House and U.S. Supreme Court, you would have to conclude that there is no longer rule of law where there is a set of general rules applicable to all persons.
Today, we are commanded by legislative thugs who, with Supreme Court sanction, issue orders commanding particular people to do particular things. Most Americans neither understand nor appreciate the spirit and letter of the Constitution and accept Congress' arbitrary orders and privileges based upon status.
What to do? Thomas Jefferson advised, "Whensoever the General (federal) Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force." That bit of Jeffersonian advice is dangerous. While Congress does not have constitutional authority for most of what it does, it does have police and military power to inflict great pain and punishment for disobedience.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.