Why Healthcare is not a Right
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: