But as with all great documents written centuries ago, there's a little bit of leeway in the language that has only grown as the meaning of our language has changed and phrasing that was common in 1787 is so two centuries ago today.
One of these phrases is from the Preamble, which I will reiterate (said phrase is highlighted):
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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."Promote the general Welfare" is an interesting phrase, as it has been used, on the occasion we can get an answer from a politician (rather than the arrogant exclamatory cackle "Are you Serious?"), as a justification for every single governmnet transfer program ever created. However, I don't think welfare was what the Founding Fathers meant.
So let's clarify what is the general welfare. First, pertinent definitions (because definitions do matter):
General - not limited to one class, field, product, service, etc.; miscellaneous: the general public; general science.
Welfare - the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being: to look after a child's welfare; the physical or moral welfare of society.
In this case, the concept of the "general Welfare" are those things that benefit the society as a whole, not just specific groups, people, or organizations. Which brings me to some examples:
Infrastructure such as the Interstate highway system was created as a defense measure, but also benefits the public at large, thus the general welfare, whereas payouts for state projects would be for some people and not others, therefore NOT the general welfare.
Adjusting business taxes down or eliminating overreaching regulations to allow business to grow (without the use of loopholes) is for the general welfare. Subsidizing a specific industry or regulating an industry because of a moral, ethical, philosophical or political objection, is NOT for the general welfare.
Maintaining national parks, which preserves parts of our country that are unique and allows anyone to come and explore the majesty of our country, is, arguably, part of the general welfare. Building shit for a specific city is NOT for the general welfare.
Fighting a pandemic (H1N1 this year) in order to keep it form spreading across the country and killing a whole bunch of people, which requires national coordination and response, is a part of the general welfare. Providing insurance for part of the population by taking it from the other part of the population is NOT for the general welfare.
Now this is not an absolute yes/no process, but the point is simple. Spending and programs and laws that address the citizens at large, without discrimination on the basis of class, income or geographic location are generally part of what can be called the general welfare. Those programs however, that serve to benefit one group at the expense of another, often out of a misplaced sense of fairness, cannot be justified by the concept of the general welfare. And if they cannot otherwise be justified by the Constitution, then it is time to consider another way to provide those things:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.