Friday, August 21, 2009

Healthcare as a Right

Life continues to be busy, so I have not had the chance to dig into the various healthcare bills being bandied about the House. To do the topic justice would require prodigious amounts of time, so I’ve resigned myself to being a spectator in this particular debate.

However, there is one issue upon which I’d like to comment, and that is the tendency of various liberal defenders of Obama’s healthcare plans to declare that healthcare is a right. This tendency seems wrongheaded to me for at least two reasons.

For one thing, healthcare is not yet a legal right. There is no Amendment 10.5 which states that individual citizens have a right to healthcare. It may be proper to discuss (or even declare) that healthcare ought to be a right. But to declare that healthcare is a right gets ahead of ourselves.

I acknowledge there were times in our history when thinkers have declared one right or another to exist in advance of its being codified in law. However, these statements have traditionally referred to natural rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t think that John Locke was thinking about government-sponsored healthcare when he developed his theory of natural rights in the context of the social contract.

We do now have certain legal rights: a right to practice religion of our choosing, a right to peacefully assemble, a right to bear arms, a right to free speech. These things are codified in the Constitution. Other rights, such as the right to abortion, or the right counsel upon being arrested, have been conferred upon us by the courts.

But we do not yet have a right to healthcare. It is reasonable to argue that we should have one, but we don’t have one yet.

The second reason why the “right to healthcare” is misguided has more to do with the goals of those who would utter such a phrase. I would bet that a great majority of those who consider healthcare to be a right do so in furtherance of a policy of government-sponsored healthcare.

But rights are restrictions on government power, not grants of government power. The fact that I have a right to my religion means the government must allow me to practice this religion in a manner of my choosing. It does not mean that government will construct my church, pay the preacher and provide a bus for me to get back and forth on Sunday mornings. Same for a right to free speech. Government may not abridge that right. It does not mean that government must purchase me a megaphone, buy me a television advertisement or procure a spot for me on Larry King.

Under this reading, a right to healthcare means that government should get out of the way and allow people to pursue the thing in as efficient or inefficient manner as they see fit.

And here’s the great irony: any reasonable reading of Obama’s healthcare plans would have to acknowledge that healthcare rationing is part of the plan. In order to make it public, and to make it affordable, it would be necessary to ration it in some form. Obama himself has acknowledged as much, although in Clintonesque doublespeak.

Think about that: the very people who argue that healthcare is a right are the same ones who would abridge that right by mandatorily providing healthcare to certain people in such a way as to diminish their ability to procure it.