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Why Healthcare is not a Right

Thursday, August 21, 2008
By Dan

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, but it is worth putting the issue in context.  Due in part to rapid advances in medical treatments, ordinary people are being forced to choose between bankruptcy and lifesaving treatments that didn’t exist only a few years ago.  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.

Contrary to our bumper sticker slogan, rights are not unlimited and 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 (or burdening, 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.  That would place an undue burden on the Wall Street Journal and would infringe on their rights of property and freedom of association.  If, however, you can afford to, you can purchase a full page ad (or the Wall Street Journal itself) 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 similar 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 one 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. Would a carpenter invest in a new type of construction equipment if he made no profit?

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: Thanks to John Hawkins at Right Wing News and the David All Group for the acknowledgment!

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks for your continued support!  Please take a look at the Daily Danet Newsstand.  If you liked this article, you might like this anti-Obamacare design:


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23 Responses to “Why Healthcare is not a Right”

  1. Mike Harmon

    Nice site. There

  2. Right Wing News

    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……

  3. Vanessa


  4. decypher

    Well written. Kudos.

  5. Ron

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

  6. House of Eratosthenes

    [...] 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. [...]

  7. philmon

    “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.

  8. Lawrence

    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!!

  9. Mr Bill :o

    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.

  10. SoftwareNerd

    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.

  11. Paul Hsieh, MD

    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):

  12. Chris Berry

    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

  13. Jason Ford

    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.

  14. Jason Ford

    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?

  15. AbbiNormal

    You now have another reader to add to your numbers. Very well written! I am going to send this to my mom, who has been saying the exact same thing for years. Well done!

  16. Dave the storm.

    I’m as conservative as they come and this article is a pile of bullshit.
    We pay over 15% of our GDP in America for health care while the asians, euros and the canadians trade higher just for their health care index and they don’t even pay over 5% of their collective GDPs for health care.

  17. [...] said before, healthcare is not a right.  Anytime you delve into the health and wellness of human beings, their most personal decisions [...]

  18. DrGreg


    Thanks for writing this article. We are waging war on four main fronts against statism in health care: Moral, Constitutional, Economic, and Pragmatic. The argument against the “right” to health care is at the heart of the health care debate. Thanks for the ammo. I have posted a link to this article on my blog, Doctors on Strike, at the website for Doctors on Strike for Freedom in Medicine.

    Dr. Gregory Garamoni
    Doctors on Strike for Freedom in Medicine

    P.S. We invite you to visit our website (doctorsonstrikedotcome), which provides factual, political, and intellectual ammunition to win the war against statism in medicine. Please consider signing our Petition to Protect Doctor-Patient Rights.

  19. Hermes

    If the branch of the government that I work with decided healthcare issues, the patient would be dead before they decided which regs to follow, and which GS (Government Service) grade person has the authority. (And then the forms would get hung up someplace and you’d have to find that person, and the person wouldn’t be there because they got President’s day off.) And when the person with the forms came back, they’d need to figure out who has the authority, and then the person with authority would be gone inexplicably. By then though you’d be dealing with a rotten corpse, and that would be a whole different set of people, and you’d look silly for asking the initial question.

    There would be 5 sets of regulations, all created by different senate committes or organizations in order to help their organization or state gain more funding and power. This is not to say that the individual hasn’t already lost control of nearly all the things that affect him. He has. And it’s not to say that the doctor hasn’t already lost control of treatment; she has.

  20. Chuck

    “Exposing untruth.” Well, let’s do that.

    “You cannot, for example, walk freely through your neighbors bedroom at night. That would violate their right to privacy.”

    Since you are so exact about what rights we have and do not have, please tell me where in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights a “right of privacy” is stipulated. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not.

    “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.”

    Is this true?

    Sixth Amendment:
    “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

    So what happens to your right to “have the Assistance of Counsel” for you defense if you can’t afford legal counsel? Do you lose your right to have legal counsel? No.

    Miranda v. Arizona
    “[T]he person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.”

    Who pays for the lawyer? Taxes.

  21. Dan

    Rights are not enumerated in the Constitution. The Constitution establishes limited power of the state, it is not an enumeration of rights held by the people. This is a simple but overlooked distinction. The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution makes clear that the enumeration of certain rights does not mean that other rights are given up by the people. The Consitution says what the government can do, not what the people cannot do.

    Second, the Fourth Amendment expressly enumerates your rights of privacy as against the government. The government cannot come into your home and rifle through your belongings without due process. You cannot go through my home, because the government will protect my property rights, which include the common law right against trespass, and is empowered to take away your liberty and even your life if you do. Depending on the state, I can probably use self-help, and if I catch you invading my home, I can kill you myself. These are basic rights that the state cannot take away, not because they are enumerated in the Constitution or anywhere else, but because they existed prior to the Constitution and the Constitution did not grant the government the right to infringe on them.

    As for assistance of counsel, it is not necessarily true that taxes pay for assigned counsel. A lawyer can, and many do, act for defendants pro bono. The difference between a right to counsel and the so called “right” to healthcare is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. In a criminal trial, the nearly omnipotent state is compelling the defendent’s presence, can summon witnesses from within its expansive legal grasp, has an army of lawyers, police, detectives, clerks, jailors and even pays the judges’ salary. The Constitution and our society have (rightly) determined that this overwhelming force cannot be brought to bear against defenseless citizens without the effective assistance of counsel. Analogizing this to healthcare, the government didn’t give you syphilis, so they don’t need to pay for your penicillin.

  22. Connie

    Thanks! This article came in handy when trying to explain this point to a friend.

  23. Rachaels Printable Daily Coupons

    This is a topic which is near to my heart… Best wishes! Where are your contact details though?


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