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General Welfare Clause, Commerce Clause, federalism


The Framers of the United States Constitution wrote Article I, Section 8 in order to address some daunting collective action problems facing the young nation. They especially wanted to protect the states from military warfare by foreigners and from commercial warfare against one another. The states acted individually when they needed to act collectively, and Congress lacked power under the Articles of Confederation to address these problems. Section 8 thus authorized Congress to promote the “general Welfare” of the United States by tackling many collective action problems that the states could not solve on their own.

Subsequent interpretations of Section 8, both outside and inside the courts, often have focused on the presence or absence of collective action problems involving multiple states—but not always. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States, in trying to distinguish the “truly national” from the “truly local” in the context of the Commerce Clause, United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 617–18 (2000), has differentiated “economic” activity, which Congress may regulate, from “noneconomic” activity, which Congress may not regulate.

A federal constitution ideally gives the central and state governments the power to do what each does best. Economic activity does not generally cause collective action problems among the states, and noneconomic activity is not generally free from collective action problems. Consequently, Congress is not generally better at regulating economic activity, and the states are not generally better at regulating noneconomic activity. The distinction between economic and noneconomic activity seems mostly irrelevant to the problems of federalism.

We propose a better foundation for American federalism in Section 8. Our theory distinguishes activities that pose collective action problems from those that do not. This approach flows directly from the relative advantages of the federal government and the states. We show that Section 8 mostly concerns collective action problems created by interstate externalities and national markets. We conclude that Section 8 authorizes Congress to tax, spend, and regulate to solve these collective action problems.

Collective action federalism finds that the limits and expanse of congressional power in Section 8 turn on the difference between individual and collective action by the states. The theory uses this distinction to differentiate interstate commerce from intrastate commerce, not the economic/noneconomic distinction. Our distinction best explains why Congress may not ordinarily use its commerce power to regulate such crimes as assault or gun possession in schools. Collective action federalism also identifies a constitutional “hook” for Congress to regulate multi-state problems of collective action that may not involve commerce: Clause 1 of Section 8 authorizes some forms of regulation of noneconomic harms that spill over state boundaries, such as contagious diseases and certain kinds of environmental pollution.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Federal government, Constitutional law--United States., Constitution Welfare clause, Interstate commerce--Law and legislation--United States., United States