When the government takes money from the residents of one state and gives it to another state, it is no[t] providing for general welfare, but rather specific welfare. The ability to tax to collect revenue for expenditures is only allowed per the Constitution for seventeen specific duties. Penalizing one state and benefiting another is not a legal function and does not benefit the “general welfare.” Likewise, when the federal government collects taxes and redistributes them to specific individuals, this is no longer “general welfare.” It is very specific. It is not one of the duties or legally delegated powers of the federal government per our Constitution.

via Specific,not general. [emphasis added]

Apparently, knowing the difference between a special interest and the public interest is difficult. Near as I can make out, most people fool themselves. Make a halfway plausible case for your interest being in the public interest, and that’s enough — at least for most folk.

For example, I was arguing the Takings Clause with a friend, some time back, and said that taking things from individuals for the purposes of aiding “the public” still required compensation, even if the takings in question was a regulatory confiscation. He was concerned. “We would have to pay too much!”

My response didn’t impress him: “Then maybe it really isn’t in the public interest.”

He was concerned about “the environment.” Wetlands had become a major issue of environmental policy in the state we lived in — one of the wettest states of the union — and the government was prohibiting people from using their own even only sometimes-wet property. I expressed opposition to this policy, on the grounds that the new wetlands policy was a government taking, de facto if not de jure.

As often happens in such arguments, our dialectic skirted big issues and resolved nothing. But somehow it came down to my friend insisting that I viewed environmental lobbyists as “mere special interests.” And, perhaps too hastily, I concurred.

“Just because you have an aesthetic interest in some bit of land, flora, or fauna, or wish to conserve a previous natural status quo, doesn’t necessarily make your values a public interest. Just because you set up a ‘public interest think tank’ doesn’t make your goals in the public interest. You’ve quite a lot to prove. And you think you’ve almost nothing to prove.”

And I went further: “I’ll admit that I have a lot to prove, too. I have to show you that liberty and the individualist division of responsibility is in the public interest, while dirigisme and socialized responsibility are not. I spend a lot of time thinking about this. And hey: I engage in philosophy, economics, sociology, social psychology, ecology — many, many disciplines — to show why demanding less from people is more in the public interest than demanding more and more and more.”

Indeed, my complaint with many formulations of “natural law” is that they seem to do what my friend the environmentalist does: merely restate his values as in the public interest when that case seems shaky, at least the way he and the natural law advocates think it.

This is not to say that environmental interests are ipso facto wrong. Or that there’s nothing to natural law. It’s to say that one has to be able to go beyond merely restating one’s case in slightly different form.

It amuses me to see environmentalists extolling “nature” and libertarians extolling “natural law.” They both do so for reasons. The reasons are not difficult to see. They have more in common than they think. They share a method of ethics.

But, in most cases, they are wrong, wrong because they are both too hasty:

  • Environmentalists tend to err by assuming that some goal protecting nature is enough to satisfy a public interest criterion.
  • Libertarian natural law advocates err by assuming that a restatement of their basic ideology in terms of natural law is enough argumentation to prove their point, and convince others.

But, thankfully, most issues requiring the separation of special from general interests are easier to parse. And the Constitution, as written and ratified, did assume that these issues would be fairly easy to see.

Alas, stricken with power lust and enticed by the opportunity to gain individual advantage at the expense of the general purse, the people operating within the Constitution’s confines quickly threw off its chains, and made themselves incapable of elementary distinctions.