What does it mean to have a “right”? I’ve been contemplating this over the past week in the wake of watching congress pass health care reform on C-SPAN on Sunday. My gut level reaction, based on my basic presuppositions regarding the relationship between the individual and the state, is that our society has crossed the Rubicon towards an accelerated loss of individual liberty. Not that either party has had a monopoly on our long slouch towards authoritarianism. Still, I know that many well-meaning people, including many friends, hold that health care is a “right”. I find myself asking, “are they correct”? At the end of the day I simply can’t wrap my mind around this idea.
So what is a right? Websters defines it as “something to which one has a just claim”. My own understanding of rights (and this exposes my political prejudices) is that our fundamental rights are inalienable and arise out of virtue of our inherent individual humanity. I would also add, paraphrasing our Declaration of Independence, that our rights are endowed by God. Perhaps it is also possible to formulate a theory of individual rights without reference to God; I don’t know. Regardless, our rights are not bestowed by the government and are protected by (but not based upon) our constitution. I find it absolutely astonishing that this position has once again become radical in our country, and that those who adhere to it are routinely demonized.
So where does health care fit into this? The only way I can make sense of calling a health care a “right” is to categorize rights as individual rights and social rights. Our historic rights as Americans are individual rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom for self-defense, freedom to own property…these things have their root in the concept of the individual first accountable to God, then to their family, then to their community, and only lastly to the State. Again, this belief in the self-reliance of the individual to live life with a minimum of interference used to be a common assumption that bound people of all political parties.
Social rights, on the other hand, place the good of society (as ultimately decided by the State) before the individual. The necessities of survival, such as shelter, food, and yes, health care, eventually become the responsibility of the State, then the community, then the family, and lastly the individual. In this vision, if the individual cannot provide for a basic need, it is the social responsibility of the larger society to meet this need.
This is why I have a difficult time classifying social rights as a “right”. The individual may certainly have a claim on the necessities of life, but is every claim to necessity just? A “right” to health care, for example, necessitates equal access to the services of others. Assuring “social justice” in creating equal rights requires enforcement of equal outcomes…which inevitably leads to mediocrity for all. Compulsory appropriation of services by the government from individuals (doctors) or private organizations (non-public hospitals) is inherently unjust, not just for doctors who can no longer freely practice their profession, but for society as a whole which is deprived the benefits and progress which result from free practice.
Either you see this point or you don’t: attempting to solve the injustice of skyrocketing health care costs by creating new injustices is not morally justifiable. The ends do not justify the means. Two wrongs do not make a right. When social rights lead to the involuntary seizure of the fruits of others’ labors, they are not a just claim. Unfortunately, this is likely now a moot point. As a child, I never understood the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, but I think I do now. As a country, we are tired of hunting on our own. We are more than willing to sell our birthrights of freedom for a cup of porridge and a band-aid.