15 September 2009

Health Care Not a "Right"

So I was hanging out with a good friend of mine (who looks fabulous in navy pants, btw) the night of Obama's obligatory health care plug. Our conversation inevitably turned to Obamacare, specifically whether health care was a right or not. I feel the need to articulate my thoughts a little more on this.

The Declaration of Independence declares that all human beings posses "certain unalienable rights" that have been "endowed by their Creator." These God-given rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Health care isn’t on that list. The question is, should it be?

This question is far more significant than it may first seem, and the justification for a government takeover of health care depends on the answer. The very next sentence in the Declaration affirms that the purpose of government is to "secure" those rights against infringement. If access to health care is deemed a fundamental right, as many on the left have claimed, then the government must be obliged to guarantee that access to every citizen. Medical treatment would have to be available on an equal basis to anyone seeking it, regardless of age, physical condition, or ability to pay. Essentially, it could be equated to our religious freedom. Our freedom to worship how, where, and what we choose does not depend on private markets. We do not have to purchase it, it is ours by right, regardless of our economic or social condition. But can this value really be assigned to health care?

Ted Kennedy certainly thought so, as do Barack Obama, the progressives, and some well-meaning citizens. And it is not hard to understand why. As human beings, and as Americans in particular, we are especially concerned about the well-being of others (this is one of the luxuries afforded to citizens of a developed and wealthy nation). Few of us are indifferent to the desperation felt by those who need medical care, but cannot afford it. But basic human rights are not founded upon passion, or even upon need. Wanting something, no matter how justifiably or altruistically, does not entitle you to possess it, especially if someone else will be forced to provide it for you.

This is where our comparison of the right to health care to the freedom of religion (and the rest of the unalienable rights) fails. The rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence are strictly negative rights (meaning they cannot be taken away). Our right to free speech, to own property, or to worship does not infringe on any other person's right to the same. We can all simultaneously express ourselves, own property (ownership of my home does not inhibit in any way your ownership of your home), and assemble for worship without inhibiting anyone else from doing the same. But if I claim health care as a right, then someone else must be compelled to provide or pay for that care. This compulsion can be in the form of higher taxes, insurance mandates, health care rationing, etc., but the bottom line is that a right to health care would leave society less free.

Imagine if we used this same line of reasoning with regards to food or clothing. Both are essential to human welfare, but few would suggest that Washington national the food and clothing industries. You cannot simultaneously guarantee either without again compelling someone to provide them. In fact, it is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities whose availability is dependent on the market that they can be had in such abundance and diversity. This is exactly why we need to allow health insurance companies to compete across state lines. As Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe recently said,
Some people will always need help. No decent person ignores the cries of the sick or hungry or poor. Happily, there is no better system for achieving the widest possible access to health care - or any other good or service - than the one that requires the least degree of political interference: the normal interplay of supply, demand, and competition. Health care is too important to be left to the market? No, it is too important not to be.

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