The Constitution or Good Ideas?

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather QuillLet me run through a few good ideas. I think it’s a good idea for children to eat healthful, wholesome foods. In the raising of our daughter, before-dinner treats were fresh vegetables, and after-dinner treats were mostly fruits.

I arrive at my gym sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., at least four times a week, to lift weights and use the treadmill. During the warmer months, the treadmill is substituted by a weekly total of 40 to 60 miles on my bike. My exercise regimen is a good idea. Another good idea is to wear a bike helmet while bike riding and wear a seat belt when driving my car. Among many other good ideas is the enjoyment of two, maybe three, glasses of wine with each evening meal.

You say, “So what, Williams? What’s your point?” There’s no question that all of those actions, with the possible exception of the last, are indeed good ideas. As evidence that my exercise regimen is a good idea, my doctors tell me that at 78 years of age, I’m in better health and conditioning than most of their male patients many years my junior. My question to you is whether these commonly agreed-upon good ideas should become the law of the land. To be more explicit, should Congress enact a law requiring every able-bodied American to lift weights four times a week and bike 40 to 60 miles each week? Just look at all the benefits of such a law. Americans would be healthier, and that would mean lower health care costs. People would have a longer working life. Men would have the strength to protect their women and children folk from thugs. In a word, there would be no downside to the fitter population that would come from a congressional law mandating physical fitness programs. We might title such a law the “Improving American Health Act.” The law would impose fines and penalties on any able-bodied person not found to be in compliance. What congressman would have the callousness to vote against such a beneficial measure?

Needless to say, there would be attacks against the Improving American Health Act, launched mostly by libertarians, conservatives and some Republicans.

These people would argue that Congress has no constitutional authority to enact such a liberty-intrusive law. Their arguments would be on weak grounds. Our Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8 says, “The Congress shall have Power To … provide for the … general Welfare of the United States.” Our Constitution further empowers Congress to enact the Improving American Health Act by its Article 1, Section 3 — sometimes referred to as the commerce clause — which grants Congress the power “To regulate Commerce … among the several States.” After all, good health lends itself to more efficient interstate commerce and a larger gross domestic product. Sick Americans adversely affect interstate commerce and are a burden on economic activity.

I have no doubt that people who don’t want to see a healthier America — again, mostly libertarians, conservatives and Republicans — will bring suit before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Congress has no such authority under either the general welfare clause or the commerce clause. Would you prefer that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., speaking for a majority, concur by saying, “This court is guided by the U.S. Constitution, and we find no constitutional authority for the Improving American Health Act, despite Congress’ nonsense claims alleging authority under the general welfare and commerce clauses”?

Or would you prefer that Justice Roberts, speaking for the majority, engage in mental contortions in which he agrees that forcing people to exercise exceeds congressional authority under both the commerce clause and the general welfare clause but says the Improving American Health Act is indeed constitutional under Congress’ taxing authority?

My bottom line question is: Should we be ruled by what are seen as good ideas or by what’s permissible by the U.S. Constitution?

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  • Paul Marks

    Professor Williams is being ironic, but some people may not understand this so I will formally explain…. Out of context (and with edits) – actually the text of Article One, Section Eight says “the common defence and general welfare” – this being the PURPOSE of the specific spending powers then listed (under this preamble) granting the Congress the power (if it wishes) to spend money of various specific things.
    If there were such a thing as a “catch-all” “general welfare spending power” (rather than the “common defence and general welfare” being the PURPOSE of the specific spending powers) then the list of specific spending powers is pointless, and the Tenth Amendment (limiting the Federal government) is meaningless.
    As for “regulate interstate commerce” this clearly means (in context) establish free trade over State lines (it gives the Federal government the power to strike down State restrictions on trade) it is NOT about the Federal government controlling people’s lives.
    “We know all this Paul” – yes, but in these degenerate days such things have to be made very plain.


      “We” may know it, but there are obviously 4 or 5 Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who don’t.

  • adamjw2

    No, we should not be ruled by good ideas alone. The ideas established in the Constitution are time tested, unlike most of these ideas some bureaucrat came up with while sitting on the john.

    Will and Ariel Durant explain it better than I could:
    “Out of every 100 new ideas, 99 or more will probably be inferior to the
    traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man however brilliant or well informed can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of society. For these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

  • Johnny

    Unfortunately the so called good ideas are most frequently only selling points used to push constituency driven partisan politics. The Constitution is being trashed not for improvement, but for the sake of political gain by those who are trashing it.

  • tagalog

    At least two current Supreme Court justices believe that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment allows preferential treatment of classes of people on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, or place of national origin. So be careful about loose language on what is permitted by the Constitution.


    What Williams did not go on to explain is that the proper purpose of government is to maintain individual rights, not compel behavior that those who govern decree to be beneficial. He also did not point out, probably due to shortness of space, how deadly is the principle that government may use force to compel the citizen to engage in activities the state finds “beneficial” because such power must always be arbitrary. Today exercise, tomorrow gun confiscation, the day after compulsory demonstrations in support of our Dear Leader.

    • Lightbringer

      The day that government started to provide medical care for members of its civilian population is the day that it took upon itself the right to determine what we may eat, how often and how we must exercise, whether or not we may smoke, and so forth. Which is why this civilian does not like government-paid medical care for anyone, other than the captive populations of the military and the penal system.


        Certainly that is the opening wedge of statism, as the Federal District Judge who struck down Obamacare realized. Unfortunately, 5 Supreme Court Justices can’t see that.

  • seewithyourowneyes

    The best way to promote good ideas is to allow those people who adopt bad ideas to suffer the consequences of their ill-advised actions.

  • Bob in Florida

    In response to the author’s ‘bottom line’ question, “My bottom line question is: Should we be ruled by what are seen as good ideas or by what’s permissible by the U.S. Constitution?”, I would respond that: “We should be ruled by what are seen as good ideas AND what’s permissible by the U.S. Constitution.”

    There are many good ideas that should rule how we live our lives: however, there are many of those same good ideas that do NOT NEED TO BE LAWS and are NOT ALLOWED TO BE LAWS to rule our lives.