Health Care is Not a Right

President Obama argues that his party’s health care reform proposals are about “bending the price curve” However, the Democrats’ health care agenda is really about nationalizing health care, based on the concept that health care is a right, and therefore must be secured by the state. This claim is misleading for several reasons, but most fundamentally because of its conflation of “rights” and “needs.” Obamacare opponents need to address this emotional appeal. After all, who can be against basic “rights”?

Lying on a bed in an emergency room this week following a cardiac scare, one of us had an opportunity to think this through. He had a need for healthcare, one which was being met, but to what extent was it meaningful that he had a right to healthcare?

A right, in both a legal and practical sense, is simply an entitlement due to an individual that other people are obliged to respect, with a failure to comply typically resulting in some sort of sanction. Because rights entail claims on other people, they are necessarily negative in their construction and limited in their definition. Constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to property can be clearly defined in accordance with John Stuart Mill’s harm principle—act as you will so long as you do not directly harm others.

In contrast, the expansive “rights” demanded by liberals—like the right to “affordable health care” or to a “decent standard of living”—are not rights but positive demands that require others to hand over some of the property to the claimant. Whereas genuine rights protect citizens from state coercion, the “right to health care” serves to justify state coercion against a particular part of the population: those who pay taxes. Moreover, by their very nature, such positive demands cannot be clearly defined and hence are capable of infinite expansions. As one need is satisfied, others arise.

Consistent with this distorted view of “rights,” the defining characteristic of the health care “public option” is its coercive quality: the taxes imposed on insurance companies, the burdensome individual mandate, the requirement that employers provide health insurance (subject to government approval), the loss or reduction of individual choice over treatment options, and the list goes on.

As the legendary British political thinker Edmund Burke made clear, the question of how to address needs is not moral, but economic. “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine?” he posited. “The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.”

Indeed, man’s basic needs are best managed by the free market, which can coordinate supply and demand through the price system, placing decisions in the hands of individuals and specialized experts. In the case of health care, the government injecting billions of dollars into the market will lead to the warped economic scenario of higher education today. It will discourage consumers from exercising restraint in their use of a scarce resource and encourage providers to inflate their prices, while absorbing capital that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

Far from saving money and helping out the little guy, a health care “public option” would further increase costs and reduce individual liberty, while creating a subject client class that has an incentive to lobby for further handouts.

That’s why, while facing a potentially life-threatening emergency last week, Iain was glad he was being treated via the free market. A voluntary exchange whereby doctor, patient and insurance company facilitator all stood to gain something they desired was surely better for all of us than an arrangement in which one or more parties was being effectively coerced.

President Obama has sought to claim the high ground in the health care debate through his use of lofty moralizing language designed to delegitimize any opposition. In order to be effective, Obamacare opponents need to go beyond opposing particular items on the president’s agenda. They must retake the high ground by arguing that the welfare state actually violates individual rights, and hurts the very people it claims to help. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it so well: “It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights—the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to health care, the ’right’ to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are rations of slavery—hay and a barn for human cattle.”