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Life, Liberty, and…Health Care?

Countless voices are claiming medical care is a right. Is it?

Throughout the health care debate, Republicans and Democrats have argued over many points, such as which kinds of reforms would most effectively give all Americans access to health care and how much we should be willing to spend on such programs. Very few, however, are actually stopping to ask if the government ought to be in the business of providing health coverage at all. There seems to be an unstated agreement that people have a right to health care. Barack Obama certainly thinks so, as do many of our other elected leaders. Obama himself said during his campaign for the presidency, “I think [health care] should be a right for every American.” The rest of the world seems to agree, given that the United Nations states in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights that, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.”

Do we have a right to health care? What is a right, and what do we have a right to? These questions deserve honest consideration given the far reaching implications of their answers. We might start by asking: Do we have a right to food? Do we have a right to a home, a big screen TV, or a decent car? How about a personal jet?

A clue to answering these questions lies in the Declaration of Independence, in which the founders of our country identified “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (emphasis added) as the rights which a proper government is supposed to protect. They did not assert a right to happiness itself, which would imply that the government should provide its citizens with whatever material items would make them most happy. Instead, they framed these rights as guarantees of freedom. Specifically, these rights guarantee freedom from things rather than a right to something. That is, we have a right to be free from interference by others, not a right to be provided the things we seek. Our rights to things like property, free speech, and association involve the freedom to pursue property ownership, to express our opinions, and to form relationships with others. They do not entail the government providing us a home, a radio station, or a friend.

A right to private property doesn’t mean that someone must provide you with things like homes or TV sets. It merely acknowledges your right to act to acquire and keep private property in a way that does not violate another person’s rights in the process. Similarly, a right to life does not imply that people must provide you with things to keep you alive, such as food, shelter, or health care. It means that each person can live according to his own decisions free from coercion, and that he may act to improve his own life as long as doing so does not interfere with anyone else.

Any alleged entitlement to a material good requires the violation of the rights of others. As Ayn Rand wrote in her essay Man’s Rights:

Jobs, food, clothing, recreation(!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values – goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them? If some are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Similarly, a “right” to health care implies that a person’s need of health care dictates that a doctor must provide it to him, regardless of whether the patient can pay him. Or if the doctor is to be compensated for his services, then someone else must be forced to pay.

This wrong against doctors or the people footing the medical bills is only the first of many transgressions that would have to be committed by a government upholding a “right” to health care. Hospital administrators would be denied the right to set the terms of their services, such as which procedures could be performed and on whom. Those in the insurance industry, forced to offer coverage to everyone at the same price regardless of their preexisting conditions, would be denied the right to run their businesses according to their judgment. Shareholders would be robbed of wealth as the health care industry would struggle to maintain profitability. Consumers would begin to lose their freedom of choice as options disappear under government mandates to control costs. As taxpayers, we would be forced to further bankroll our neighbors’ doctor bills, violating our right to spend the fruits of our labor, i.e. our private property, as we see fit. No one, not even the intended recipients of the nation’s collective sacrifice, would be able to escape the gradual but inevitable destruction of rights and freedom under such a system.

Rather than injecting more government force into the health care industry, we should adopt more freedom into our system through measures such as removing tax incentives for employer provided health care over individual plans, allowing interstate competition for health insurance, and repealing laws mandating certain levels of coverage from health insurers. Only by offering people the freedom to pursue health care on their own terms, while respecting everyone’s rights in the process, will our ailing system become healthy once more.

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