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Government’s role: What does ‘promote the general welfare’ include?

Historian Heather Cox Richardson turns her attention to the fairly idiotic right-wing obsession with the idea that the government can’t force anyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

 

Pfizer vaccine
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
The government is not forcing anyone to get the vaccine, and thanks to idiots like Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, your right to decline the vaccine, which greatly improves your chances of getting sick and even dying from Covid, is well-established.
The excellent historian and now newsletter writer and podcaster Heather Cox Richardson turned her attention recently to the fairly idiotic right-wing obsession with the idea that the government can’t force anyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

She starts with an exchange on Fox in which Steve Doocey urged viewers to get vaccinated because it would improve their chances of not dying, to which Brian Kilmeade retorted that that’s a personal choice and “it’s not their [the government’s] job to protect anybody.”

Of course, it’s a little complicated. But not much. The government is not forcing anyone to get the vaccine, and thanks to idiots like Kilmeade, your right to decline the vaccine, which greatly improves your chances of getting sick and even dying from Covid, is well-established.

According to me, who happily got vaccinated as soon as I could, the vaccine resistance movement is incredibly dumb but, yes, perhaps, I guess, constitutionally protected. In any event, no one has proposed fining or locking up vaccine resisters. You also have a constitutional right to eat mud and drink urine.

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The Constitution does, right in the preamble, authorize the federal government to “promote the general welfare,” which is a vague enough phrase to allow substantial inquiry into exactly what measures such general welfare promotion might entail. And I suspect a clever lawyer could make a case that requiring vaccination falls under that rubric, but, so far at least, coercing vaccinations has not been suggested very seriously.

photo of heather cox richardson
Heather Cox Richardson
Being a historian, Richardson naturally traces some of the ways that government has promoted the general welfare, many of which might offend a radical libertarian, and that’s fine. That’s our system. If someone thinks the government is exceeding its powers, they can sue and sometimes they will win, although they would be well-advised not to repeat Kilmeade’s idiotic not-their-job-to-protect-anybody explanation.

Richardson quotes Abe Lincoln, who once said that “the legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.’’ Lincoln, you may recall, was a Republican, which was a big surprise to Donald Trump when it came to his attention not that long ago.

Richardson introduces the most current application of Lincoln’s principle to the current challenges facing the country. And she plays a few notes of historical context. She certainly doesn’t exhaust the inexhaustible question of how much and how far the government can do in general-welfare-promotion. Nor, perhaps, will that question ever really be exhausted. But it’s a smart, not-so-long comment on the topic that ends with a pessimistic suggestion that, especially in a country closely divided along partisan lines and in a system that requires a rather large amount of agreement to get anything done, the odds favor those who fight against such efforts. Her piece ends:

“In today’s struggle over the nature of government, the Democrats are at a disadvantage. They want to use the government to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, just as Lincoln and FDR and Eisenhower advocated. To drive their individualist vision, though, all the Republicans have to do is stop the Democrats.”

Here’s another link to her full piece.