Recently, Oprah, had an episode about healthcare.  Oprah, Michael Moore and other guests continued to refer to healthcare as a right.  Many people disagree with this fundamental issue, but have difficulty articulating why. So here is my best effort to explain to the five people who read this blog, why it is I believe that healthcare is not a “right.”

The classic response is that a right is not something someone gives you, but something that no one can take away.  This a good bumper sticker, but it is not terribly instructive if you’re not already convinced.  I don’t presume to solve the problem of escalating healthcare costs.  Due in part to rapid advances in medical treatments, ordinary people are being forced to choose between lifesaving treatments that didn’t exist only a few years ago and bankruptcy.  Rampant lawsuits, anti-healthcare provider forces and those evil profit seekers can be left for another time.  A more basic question, however, is whether you (and I) have a right to healthcare.

Rights are not unlimited.  Rights can be restricted or even taken away.  For example, you have the right to liberty (to walk freely wherever you please).  But others can restrict that right in certain circumstances.  You cannot, for example, walk freely through your neighbors bedroom at night.  That would violate their right to privacy.  If you commit a crime and are tried and convicted, your liberty can be revoked completely.

Rights really only make sense in the context of a lawful society.  Governments are instituted, as a basic matter, to determine where one person’s rights end and another’s begins. For example, you have a right to free speech, but others have a right against defamation.  If you say something untrue and defamatory about someone, the government can determine whose right trumps.

From the perspective of the government, a right is something that can be ensured to one citizen without taxing (in the broadest sense) another citizen.  For example, the government can ensure your right to free speech without any cost to anyone else.  No one has to listen (you do not, for example, have the right to be listened to).  Nor does anyone have to publish your work.  You do not, however, have the right to a full-page spread in the Wall Street Journal.  If, however, you can afford to, you can purchase one (or the Wall Street Journal) and say pretty much whatever you want.  (Subject, of course, to others’ rights to be free from defamation and other torts).

In a (mostly) free and (mostly) just society like ours, rights are plentiful.  You have, to name a few, the right to bear arms, the right to your life, your liberty, the pursuit of your happiness.  To be sure, however, this does not mean the government must buy you a gun.  Nor does it mean government must purchase the things that make you happy.  It only means that government cannot restrict these rights without due process of law.

This is the crux of the issue: there is a difference between a right and a need.  For example, you need food, clothing and shelter.  You have a right to pursue these needs; the government will not prevent you from buying a home, buying food or buying a new pair of jeans.  The government does not, however, owe you a house, food or clothing.  You have no right to housing, no right to food and no right to clothing.

Consider a small society of 100 people, with laws not too dissimilar to ours.  Let’s assume 2 of these people are unable, for whatever reason, to afford their own home.  Among the other people are a carpenter, a logger, a blacksmith, a painter and a plumber.  If the government is to provide those two people with housing, it has to either (i) tax everyone to pay the workmen to build the house or (ii) compel the workmen to build the house for free.  Either way, the government must take something of value to provide this need to those who cannot obtain it on their own.

So it is with healthcare.  You need healthcare.  Everyone does.  But in order to provide you with that need, the government has to take from someone else.  They either have to tax those who can afford it or compel the doctors, pharmacists and hospitals to provide it for free.  You may think, as clearly many do, that this is not such an evil thing.  Think back to that “free” house, though.  Think how hard those workmen would work if they knew that they either weren’t being paid for their efforts, or that some nebulous body called “taxpayers” were paying them.  Also, consider how many people would voluntarily buy their own house when they knew that others had gotten on for free.  Imagine the standard of construction and innovation that would develop if housing were treated as a right; as something the government needed to provide.

Of course, governments do this all the time.  They tax one citizen to pay for another’s welfare (literally and figuratively).  They tax me to pay for your social security.  They tax you to pay for my passport.  They tax all most of us to provide for our common defense.  The point, however, is that that does not make it a right.

Governments have many purposes.  The common defense is one that most people agree on as a valid rationale for taxes.  Saving the spotted owl, however, is debatable.  So too is providing healthcare.

UPDATE: You like me, you really, really like me.  Thanks to John Hawkins at Right Wing News and the David All Group for the acknowledgment!

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 11:29 pm and is filed under Best Of, Business Section, Government, Legal, Liberals, Politics & Policy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. August 21, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    Nice site. There

    Posted by Mike Harmon
  2. August 28, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

    The Anti-Socialized Medicine Blog Post Contest: This Week’s Winner And Next Week’s Contest…

    Last week, I announced a blog contest that pays $50 to the best anti-socialized medicine post in the blogosphere. The winner on the first week is the Daily Danet for the post, “Why Healthcare Is Not A Right.” He’ll receive……

    Posted by Right Wing News
  3. August 28, 2008 @ 9:54 pm


    Posted by Vanessa
  4. August 28, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

    Well written. Kudos.

    Posted by decypher
  5. August 29, 2008 @ 8:28 am

    Well written, nicely expounded description of “right” as an everyman might consider. Bookmarked, with links emailed to friends and family.

    Posted by Ron
  6. August 29, 2008 @ 9:30 am

    [...] That Nobody Reads, remember? Anyway, we doubt like hell we could’ve done a better job than what took the top honors this week. Richly deserving, IMHO. Rights really only make sense in the context of a lawful society. [...]

    Posted by House of Eratosthenes
  7. August 29, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    “So here is my best effort to explain to the five people who read this blog…”

    Six, now!

    And you’re right, that blurb about “rights” would be a good bumpersticker. I’d put it on my car on the off chance that a person who doesn’t “get it” might simply ask himself what it means.

    Posted by philmon
  8. August 30, 2008 @ 7:53 am

    From the perspective of the government, a right is something that can be ensured to one citizen without taxing (in the broadest sense) another citizen.

    What about all other wealthy countries, who do guarantee at least basic health care to all citizens? Are these countries “misunderstanding” the definition of the word “rights”?

    Please don’t be mislead by the U.S. right wing movement against national health care rights. These people are just trying to scare the people of the U.S. The facts are that EVERY normal civilized wealthy country gives some level of health care to all its citizens, and this leads to an increased quality of life and life expectancy. (Look up the stats if you don’t believe me).

    And if you look at money, it is less expensive to cover everyone’s basics, like basic healthcare, checkups and antibiotics. Notice that they either ration or do not cover ultra-expensive or experimental procedures. Again, look up the stats if you don’t believe me.

    Think about it! Don’t be duped! Don’t be needlessly scared!!

    Posted by Lawrence
  9. September 3, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

    There is a reason to be scared of government run health care but not of government funded health care. By government I mean THE PEOPLE as is stated in our Decliration of independence. I think that just like our defence is a common goal for all citizens, so should be the health of the citizenry that will defend this nation. The problem is when the bureaucracy of the government variety tries to implement a one size fits all type of program the people lose their freedom and subsequently diminishes the standard of care. The private market dose a better job because they have to answer directly to the patient not some other bureaurocrat. We are already forced to treat any one who shows up at an emergency ward so money is the object. There is a benefit to all for all to be as healthy as possible. The work force benefits and the security of our nation is enhanced. We are spending close to 3 trillion dollars this year their must be enough in waste alone and redundancy to cover a government supplement for local medical centers for basic care and emergency needs. Doctors that owe student loans could work them off and gain experience by staffing these centers. All government funded centers would be non-profit to keep costs low but they would be run by private partnerships that are willing to work for a non-profit. By providing quality care at lower rates the rest of the medical industry will have to compete and prices will come down.

    Posted by Mr Bill :o
  10. September 4, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    Great post.

    With so many voters wondering what’s the best way to implement “the health care right”, it is about time to question the fundamentals.

    Posted by SoftwareNerd
  11. September 4, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

    Thank you for an excellent essay.

    Too much of the discussion criticizing socialized medicine centers on statistics and economics, rather than the more fundamental philosophical issue of whether health care should be considered a “right”. Your essay tackles this issue head on.

    I’d also like to mention a similar essay by Dr. Leonard Peikoff entitled, “Health Care is Not a Right”, which can be found at:

    One thing that Dr. Peikoff points out is that rights are *freedoms of action*. Hence they only impose *negative* obligations on others. For instance, my right to free speech means that my neighbor or the government must not stop me from exercising my right, but they don’t have to give me a microphone.

    In contrast, the various entitlements masquerading as rights are *claims on goods or services* that must be produced by another. They therefore are an alleged *positive* obligation. As you and he correctly note, any such purported positive obligation is tantamount to theft or slavery. The only way a government can attempt to guarantee that kind of a positive “right” is by violating individuals’ actual rights.

    There is a huge difference between a *need* and a *right*. Much of that problem in contemporary America is caused by a confusion (deliberate or otherwise) between these two very distinct concepts, and I’m glad you’ve explicitly highlighted the difference.

    As a health care debate heats up this election year, we need more discussion about this very fundamental issue. I’m glad your essay is getting wide circulation, and I thank you for writing it.

    Paul Hsieh, MD
    Sedalia, CO
    Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM):

    Posted by Paul Hsieh, MD
  12. September 11, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    Great essay. I’ve written a couple of articles on the same topic and we seem to think along the same lines on this subject. I’ll be your sixth reader.

    Healthcare Is Not A Right

    Revisiting The Oregon Plan

    Posted by Chris Berry
  13. October 7, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    Heres the best response I’ve heard re: the “mythical” right that I have to health care. I can’t take credit cause I don’t know where it originated.

    If I truly have a right to health care (which is debatable), lets examine a right that I have which is not debatable: my right to free speech. At least that is outlined in the Bill of Rights.

    I have the right to free speech. I can say what I want, when I want to, about whomever I want and you have the right to disagree with me. Let’s say I’m coming to your town and I’m really fired up about a particular topic……How Bad Your Town Sucks! I’m sorry you disagree with me, but this is my right. I can think this and I can speak this for this is my right……and oh yeah, I want you to pay for it. No really. I’m gonna need a town hall rented so I can make my speech about how bad your town sucks. I can speak ill about your town because it is my right, I don’t care if you agree with me or not. I’m also gonna need you to pay for the advertising of my speech so people from your town can come hear me bash their town. They won’t agree with me either but, too bad…..its my right. I’ll also need you to rent a P.A. , rent some chairs, provide me with lodging and meals while I’m in your town…..all on your dime. Not fair you say? Why should you pay for me to come in and speak unflattering things about your beloved hometown? Because I have the right the free speech and regardless of whether or not you agree with what I’m saying, the money to pay for this has got to come from somewhere….so, pony up and ….Long Live Free Speech!

    Most logical people would agree that this scenario is completely ridiculous. Just because I’m guaranteed the right to free speech doesn’t mean that I’m not obligated to pay for it myself. But that is exactly what the “health Care is a right crowd” is trying to convince us of. We could soon be paying for someone else’s right, whether or not we agree with it at all, if the left has its way and pushes through a national health care innitiative. Hopefully it will pass because then I could argue that my yearly trips to Amsterdam to visit the hemp shops and the red light ladies should now be government subsidized because getting high and getting jiggy with the ladies makes me very, very happy and we all know that the pursuit of happiness in one of the inalienable rights of men

    Seriously, all joking aside…..we are living in a very crucial time and are witnessing very dangerous ideas beginning to gain traction. My wife, who was born in a communist country and lived there until she was 30 years old, made an interesting observation. She commented that almost every idea being put forth by most Democratic and some Republican politicians sounded almost exactly like the propaganda she grew up listening to in communist Czechoslovakia. Ouch.

    Health care is not a right.

    Posted by Jason Ford
  14. October 8, 2008 @ 1:03 am

    I actually thought of a much simpler argument involving the “right” to health care coverage….one that liberals will probably hate even more.

    Since the left considers health care to be a right that the government should be obligated to pay for, I wonder when I’ll get my government provided handgun? What makes this “right” any different than the “right” of healthcare?

    Posted by Jason Ford

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