Disclaimer: This article argues for an important semantic difference. It makes no claims about the merits or faults of healthcare policy.
Healthcare as a right has been a rallying cry for liberal America for some time. It makes sense. Anyone with a conscience finds it difficult to be a part of a society that allows people to be priced out of cures for curable diseases or mired in debt after an emergency room visit. Pricing people out of care is becoming an increasingly unacceptable to society, so the solution liberal America is advocating for is to treat healthcare like a right.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. When our country was created, the definition of a right was a novel idea. Previously, to paraphrase Senator Ben Sasse, your rights came from the king. That which was not mandatory was forbidden and exceptions were granted on a case by case basis. If you wanted to open a store, you needed special permission. Traveling from one place to another was even subject to scrutiny. The king was the only one who was free. Therefore, anything you did was possibly cause for punishment at his sole, arbitrary discretion.
The United States was founded on a different premise. Our rights were given to us by God through nature. Government was the collective entity that ensured and protected those god-given, inalienable rights. It’s important to note that our rights do not come from government. The Bill of Rights was created to codify those rights and enshrine our freedoms. The rights that we have are a collection of things that cannot happen to us, that government cannot do or that we are always allowed to do without hindrance.
We have the right to organize, speak, publish and associate freely. We can practice whatever religion we want. We have the right to hold private property. The government cannot invade our privacy or take our property without probable cause that we ourselves violated the rights of others. When we are suspected of violating someone else’s rights, we are entitled to due process and even if found guilty we cannot be unjustly punished.
What’s important about these rights is that they require nothing from society. In short, if nobody does anything to me, then my rights are secure. Nobody has to do anything to secure these rights in a vacuum and they can only be violated by action; they can’t be violated by inaction. These rights are given to us by the condition of our birth and the only way they can be taken from us is if someone actively takes them. They are not demanding of anyone’s time, resources or talent.
Healthcare would be a gargantuan outlier if codified as a right. It requires resources, action, time and talent from hundreds of people to be guaranteed. In a world with no other humans, we cannot secure healthcare as a right. We can, however, secure every other right we currently have.
Additionally, it’s impossible to know exactly what respect for healthcare as a right looks like. Someone with stage four cancer might simply be incurable. Have their rights been violated if they are not cured? Sometimes people are misdiagnosed. Will we suddenly be prosecuting doctors who made decisions based on information thought to be correct that later turned out to be incorrect? If I didn’t get my ailing mother to the hospital in time am I now a criminal? To fully secure healthcare as a right, omniscience is required and the reality of resource scarcity is blissfully ignored.
Additionally, many look to government to secure healthcare as a right. Yet in government-run healthcare systems across the world, care rationing is widespread because resource scarcity is a problem for healthcare systems both public and private. If we as a society are fine with the government choosing when to deny healthcare as a right, there is nothing to prevent the government from denying our other rights, creating a system that America was created to avoid. Our rights would be given by government, not secured by government. The king is free. That which is not mandatory is forbidden and exceptions are granted on a case by case basis.
This is all not to say that universal healthcare systems cannot exist. This article makes no comment on their merits or faults. This is simply to say that healthcare cannot be and never will be a right. To call it a right diminishes the security of our other rights, the truly inalienable ones.