Is Health Care a Human Right?

In announcing the new bill intended to eventually get us to a single payer health care system, Governor Shumlin quickly gets to the main issue at stake in this debate.  At issue here is the assertion that health care is a human right, which must be provided by government.  The arguments over cost containment and quality of health care are really side arguments, as a very good case can be made that the free market sector approach actually addresses these concerns more effectively.  In an article on Shulim’s “Universal Health Care Bill”, the Vermont Worker’s Center gets right to the point and highlights the “human rights guidelines” included in the bill.

This is the argument that free market critics of the bill need to address.  Is health care a human right?  The argument that it is establishes the duty of government to provide us with health care.  America was founded on the premise that governments were instituted among men to secure certain “unalienable rights”.  What is an unalienable right?

The word unalienable roughly means non-transferable.  In other words, it is a right that can neither be given to us of be taken away, but is endowed to us by our creator.  We posses such rights as an endowment from our creator as a free and rational being.  Governments can only recognize and secure such rights; it does not give them to us, nor can it take them away.  These are called “negative rights” in that they limit the government by telling it what it cannot do to you.  For example, the government is not allowed to take an innocent life because life is an unalienable right that comes from our creator and not from government.  The same is true for the right to acquire property, the right to free speech, the right to assemble, etc.

Opposed to this notion of rights is what is called “positive rights”, an idea that found its way into this country from Europe.  Positive rights tell the government what it must do for you.  This notion leads to a potentially endless expansion of government because there is no limit to the number of positive rights, which we could insist that the government provide us with.

Our founders rejected the notion of positive rights for two reasons.  The first reason was that it was something that the government had to give to you, so it was not an unalienable right.  If the government can give us something, it can take it away as well.  No such right could be secure from a tyrannical government.  In fact, history has shown that precisely such rights were showered on the people by would be tyrants as they consolidated power.  As the Roman Empire was changing from a Republic to an Empire, the Caesars would hand out grain to the masses so that they were loyal to him, rather than the Roman Senate.  The dependency created by the granting of positive rights, and the potentially unlimited expansion of government that would be the inevitable result of this approach, were seen by our founders as dire threats to personal liberty.  The other reason for such a rejection was the obvious fact that government does not own that which it would distribute.  In order to distribute the goods demanded by a positive rights approach, the government would have to first confiscate them from someone.  This is not only a threat to liberty in general, and property rights in particular, but it posses a dire threat to the social order as well.  What happens here is that one group of citizens is encouraged to lobby for the state to take from another group of citizens so they can gain at the other’s expense.  This creates a war of one sector of society against another and breeds envy and resentment, thus making the compassionate community impossible.

Vermonters should take a long look at their understanding of rights and the consequences of adopting a definition of human rights that our founders explicitly rejected as a threat to both liberty and community.