At the bottom of the biggest current policy debate in America, whether to increase government intervention in health care, is a moral question: Is health care a “basic human right?” That means the right, not to buy or sell it voluntarily, but to acquire it from others through coercion.
The politician most famous for making the claim, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, was at it again Thursday during the Democratic presidential debate. But these days he is joined by increasingly left-wing competitors for the nomination in making the same claim.
Although it rarely is, the argument should be examined on the merits. Rights, in the philosophical rather than legal sense, are universal moral claims that extend to all people across time and place by virtue of their nature. They cannot extend past the point that they violate those of another person. If they lacked these universal qualities, they would lose moral weight, for they could easily and arbitrarily be deprived from certain people at certain times.
The right socialists allege exists—to consume material goods that others have created, including health care—fails to meet the universal standards for rights. Because of that, Sanders and other Democrats should be asked questions like the following to explain their beliefs. Doing so might vivify the incoherence and danger of the claim to voters.
If We Have a Right, How Do We Secure It?
Most of the medical care socialists argue people are entitled to today did not even exist decades ago. Did people a generation before us have a right to statins, which have halved the incidence of heart disease since their introduction? Did Franklin Roosevelt have a right to the polio vaccine, which virtually eradicated the disease after his death? Did people before the 1920s have a right to penicillin? Would Robinson Crusoe, the fictional character shipwrecked on a desert island in the 18th century, have the right to any health care? If so, who took that right from these people?
Similarly, do the people of Honduras, Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe today not have a right to the same quality of health care that even low-income Americans can access? If so, who is depriving them of that right? If Americans have access to such health care but Zimbabweans do not, does that not mean their government — or someone’s — should be taking doctors and resources from the United States to their country? If not, does that mean Americans possess a greater moral claim to health care than do people in poor countries?
According to a World Health Organization working group, 58 countries had socialized health care as of 2009, codifying the aforementioned right. The United States was not among them, but Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Oman, and Tunisia were. Even if poor, would an American ever choose to claim his “right” to health care in these benevolent nations, or would he roll the dice in America?
In socialist countries like Venezuela, health care is a constitutionally recognized right, but the hospitals there are nothing short of a humanitarian disaster and the entire system is wrought with shortages, as tens of thousands of doctors have fled the country. Even in Canada, the codification of a moral right to health care in a single-payer system fails to guarantee access.
Average Canadian waiting times for “medically necessary” treatments rose to 20 weeks in 2016, according to the right-leaning Fraser Institute. Not only is the quality of Canadian care inferior to the American variety, with survival rates from heart disease and cancer lower, but the inequality of care by income is greater, too, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. It all begs the question: just because a government declares health care a right and socializes medicine, does that mean its citizens are more likely to obtain care?
A Right to Unlimited Amounts of Other People’s Resources?
Even if the government could provide it, socialists must also specify how much health care is a right. Because it is an economic good with a price tag, taxpayers should know how much they expect to be milked to fund this moral obligation. Does $2,000 per person annually measure the right? $3,000? $10,000? More? How do socialists like Sanders come to whichever number they pick? If it’s $5,000 of health care that everyone has a moral claim to, does that mean $4,999 is an egregious deprivation of their human rights?
Put another way, what is the opportunity cost of this right? How much education, housing, transportation, food, apparel, and entertainment are socialists willing to forego to ensure a “great society”? (And no, there are not enough yachts and private jets in the world to finance universal government health care. Not even close.) To paraphrase Kevin Williamson, how can there be a right to a scarce material good?
Health care is a product that must be created out of thin air by the mind and muscle of doctors, nurses, scientists, businesspeople, and other providers. It is not manna from Heaven. So, if people have a right to it, they must have a claim on the labor of others.
Who is willing to tell a doctor she has an open-ended obligation to provide care to all comers — beyond emergency cases — or else? Or are Democrats willing to tell other workers that they have an open-ended obligation to toil for the taxman however long is necessary to finance the level of health care that they deem another man’s right?
In other words, how can people have a right to liberty and property, first widely acknowledged during the Enlightenment, when they simultaneously have the right to the fruits of someone else’s labor? Is there anything more backward and barbaric than claiming one man has the right to make another his beast of burden?
Socialist principles undermine much of what human civilization has built from nothing over centuries. Today the world supports more than seven billion people, with the poor in the United States living into their 70s with access to medical technologies that the richest people decades ago did not dream of.
This fortune exists in part because our society observed the individual’s rights to liberty and property that enable great advances for the many to enjoy. Undermining those rights in pursuit of an alternate reality on Earth will only make everyone poorer, less healthy, and less free.
Ryan works in commodities markets and lives in Connecticut. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he studied economics and politics. Ryan is passionate about school choice and tutors at charter schools. He tweets @ryanfazio.
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