Is healthcare a right?
DrRich has visited this question before, but it keeps being raised by readers of this blog, some of whom have decidedly settled views on the matter (either to the affirmative or to the negative), and who angrily accuse DrRich of having the wrong view (that is, either to the affirmative or to the negative). DrRich is sorry to have confused so many people regarding his stance on this important question.
So, is healthcare a right? Well, to paraphrase the last president who was widely held to be a paragon of nuanced speech (who, Lincolnesque, once noted that the truth of some assertion or other “depends on what the meaning of is is”), it depends on which meaning of “right” is right.
You see, dear reader, when you say “Healthcare is a right,” or, “Healthcare is not a right,” the accuracy of your statement entirely depends upon which kind of “right” you are invoking.
There are several.
For our purpose, we can limit our discussion to the two most commonly invoked rights: natural rights, and civil rights.
Natural rights (also called inalienable rights, or God-given rights), are rights such as those enumerated in our Declaration of Independence, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Natural rights are rights granted equally to all people by the Creator (or by “nature”), and cannot be legitimately taken away by any mere governmental authority. (Obviously, while these rights indeed can be taken away by a government through the exertion of violence, or the threat of violence, such behavior is inherently illegitimate since these rights are inalienable.)
It ought to be noted that a natural right is “inalienable” only to the extent that a critical mass of the polity accepts the overarching primacy of a natural authority that is inherently supreme to any organization which mankind can establish. This fact implies two things. First, inalienable rights will change during the course of history, as the polity changes its belief in what the Creator intends. (For instance, the divine right of kings, a right defined specifically as devolving directly from God, has today generally lost its legitimacy – at least in most quarters.) Second, in a system where the existence of a Creator (or any authority higher than the government) is formally denied altogether, there can be no natural rights at all. Indeed, when conservatives and progressives fight over putting God back in to (or keeping God out of) civil discourse, DrRich asserts, they are actually fighting over whether such a thing as natural rights really exist.
In any case, one of the fundamental characteristics of natural rights is that (because these rights are granted equally to all people) the natural right of one person cannot infringe on the natural right of another. Therefore, for instance, it is not possible for Paul to have a natural right of any sort that creates an obligation upon Peter’s time, energy, or property.
So when conservative Americans say that healthcare is not, and cannot be, a right, they are invoking natural rights. And in this context they are completely and unarguably correct.
There simply cannot be a natural right to healthcare, since guaranteeing such a right would require that some central authority be granted the power to infringe on all the other natural rights of its citizens. Such infringements would certainly begin with the confiscation of one’s personal property,* but would quickly devolve to all manner of constraints on an individual’s pursuit of happiness in the name of securing adequate healthcare for all, including one’s exercise habits, modes of transportation, eating habits, recreational pursuits, body mass index, sexual practices, right to bear arms (or other implements that may produce the need for healthcare expenditures), etc., etc. Indeed, for anyone of an extreme socialistic bent, who wishes to establish government power over the individual to the fullest extent possible, granting a natural right to healthcare would be the quickest way to accomplish it.
Thus, when conservatives say there is no right to healthcare, they are actually referring to a natural right to healthcare, and they are absolutely correct. There is, and can be, no natural right to healthcare.
Civil rights (also called legal rights or statutory rights), on the other hand, are rights conferred upon certain individuals, through the offices of a society, a government, or a belief system, by means of statute, custom, or social dogma**. While natural rights are critically important (since they provide the foundation upon which a legitimate government can be established), civil rights are also important. Our Founders recognized the importance of civil rights when they provided, for instance, the right to be considered innocent of a crime until convicted by a jury of one’s peers.
Because civil rights are created by man-made institutions, there is nothing inherent about them that prohibits the civil right of one individual from infringing upon the civil rights (or, for that matter, natural rights) of another. (Even the right of a criminal to be considered innocent until proven guilty tilts the scales in favor of the criminal and against the victim.) In all cases (well, most cases) any infringement on the rights of one citizen by the rights of another is meant to do good. In general, civil rights are conferred to redress past grievances, or to create more equitable outcomes.
So, a fundamental characteristic of a civil right is that it generally is not granted equally to all people, but rather, is conferred upon one group of individuals at the expense of another, in the name of achieving social justice.
(Identifying aggrieved groups upon which to confer new civil rights is indeed the chief exercise of progressive Americans. The only place there remains any room for debate on this point is whether their purpose in doing so is actually to achieve perfect social justice, or rather, to purposefully grow an all-powerful central government which has final authority over all aspects of every individual’s life. DrRich suspects that many if not most progressives strive for the former, though if their efforts at leveling are successful, what they will achieve is the latter.)
In any case, it is entirely feasible, and even legitimate, to declare healthcare to be a right, if by “right” you mean a civil right. Because it is within the purview of civil government to do so.
And in fact, DrRich reminds his conservative friends, this has already happened. Healthcare is indeed a right, but not because all people have a natural right to healthcare (since clearly we do not), but rather because of the BOSS rule (Because Obama Says So). In strong support of this BOSS ruling, furthermore, our duly elected representatives in Congress – from both parties – agree, by their words and deeds, that Americans indeed have a right to healthcare. (If you doubt this, read some of the Republicans’ proposed healthcare reforms.)
You can get angry about it if you like, you can rail about it all you want, but there it is. Whatever natural rights our Creator may or may not have endowed upon us, we now have a civil right to healthcare.
And now, DrRich must urge his conservative friends, not to get over it, but to get with it; to do what they claim they are good at doing (and what DrRich, also being a conservative American, usually tries to do), which is, to analyze the established facts objectively and non-emotionally, in order to see how the civil right to healthcare can best be directed toward useful ends; in this case, toward the end of upholding (rather than tearing down) those natural, inalienable rights acknowledged to us in our foundational documents.
In his next post, DrRich will attempt to describe how we might approach this question.
* When Jefferson composed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, he used as a model the Virginia Bill of Rights (drafted by George Mason). The Virginia document enumerated inalienable rights as follows: “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Jefferson shortened this to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” not because property rights were unimportant or “alienable,” but rather, because at that time it was commonly understood that the pursuit of happiness included the inalienable right to acquire, possess and dispose of one’s own property. Leaving out the explicit mention of property rights in the Declaration, then, was purely a stylistic move, and was not meant to imply that the government ought to hold any degree of power over the disposition of personal property. Which demonstrates that being screwed by style over substance is not a new phenomenon for us Americans.
** An example of social dogma is: The elevation of “diversity” to the status of uber-virtue, to which all the more classic virtues (such as faith, hope, charity, love, prudence, temperance, fortitude, etc.) are now subordinate.
*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*