Is health care (or whatever) a right?
Note: The following was written as a part of our upcoming mini course on rights theory, but I think that it stands well enough alone to be posted here.
We’ve all heard the rights hyperbole. It generally goes something like, “We have the right to health care!” or jobs, or housing, or a new car, or gasoline, or this, or that, or the other. Are such statements correct? If yes, why, or if no, why not?
For brevity’s sake, let’s address the question of just one rights claim, and, since it is the most important one at this point in time, we’ll choose health care. The question is: Do people have a right to health care?
I have chosen to present the discussion in the form of a conversation between Joe Rightsguy and a person whom we will call the Guru of Rights. The conversation goes something like this:
JR: I have a right to health care!
GOR: Do you?
JR: Of course I do.
GOR: Well, let’s see if you do. So, what is health care?
JR: You know, like if I break my arm, and then I go to the doctor, and he fixes it.
GOR: Okay, that’s a good example. We’ll use that, but let’s first simplify things as much as possible by making a few assumptions:
- That yours is the only doctor in town.
- That this is a simpler time when doctor and pharmacy are the same, and he both prescribes and dispenses necessary drugs.
- That this is a relatively poor area. There is no hospital nearby, and the doctor has no sophisticated equipment, other than his X-ray machine.
- That the doctor has a small building, which he owns, and that he employs one woman who serves as both receptionist and nurse.
GOR: What happens when you go to the doctor for your broken arm?
JR: He fixes it.
GOR: Does he do it for free?
JR: That’s a laugh. If I can’t pay, I have to go home with my arm unfixed.
GOR: So, we can assume, then, that there is no problem as long as you pay for your health care? I mean, if you pay for it, you get it, you get it quickly, and the kind of care you get is acceptable, correct?
GOR: So the problem is, then, that you have to pay for it?
JR: Absolutely. Health care is a right and should be free.
GOR: Free to whom?
JR: Free to me! And to other people who need it.
GOR: What would happen if you don’t pay the doctor?
JR: Like I said, I’d go home with an arm that had not been fixed, that’s what.
GOR: And you think that’s wrong?
JR: Of course it is. He should take care of people, even if they can’t pay.
GOR: I’ll have to admit that what you say sounds good, but let’s look at it in a little more detail, shall we?
JR: Well, okay.
GOR: We said that the doctor has a building. There is probably a mortgage, and, if so, who makes the payment?
JR: The doctor, of course.
GOR: What about the property taxes? Taxes on commercial property are much higher than those on residential property.
JR: He pays those, too. You think somebody else is going to pay them for him? Can’t speak for anybody else, but I sure ain’t about to.
GOR: No, of course not. What about repairs and upkeep?
JR: He pays for them.
GOR: And his medical supplies, drugs, and equipment? Who pays for those?
JR: The doctor.
GOR: And, as for the building and medical supplies, drugs, and equipment — once the doctor pays for them, who owns them?
JR: The doctor, of course.
GOR: So, they become the property of the doctor?
JR: Of course they do. After all, we ain’t no dadgum communists.
GOR: I wonder. And what about his nurse-receptionist? Who pays her salary?
JR: Who do you think?
GOR: So, humor me.
JR: The doctor.
GOR: Good. Now let’s be clear, if we can, about what happens when the doctor takes care of a patient, like, for example, what resources does he use in the process? To keep it simple, I will name some things, and then you can tell me if you disagree with any of them:
- The doctor’s time
- The nurse’s time
- The use of the X-ray machine
- Medical supplies — bandages, cast material, etc.
- The building
Do you agree that the doctor uses these resources in the course of treating your injury?
JR: I guess so.
GOR: And who paid for all of those things?
JR: We already said that the doctor did.
GOR: So we did.
JR: Try to keep up, will you?
GOR: I will. Thank you. Do we still agree that, since the doctor paid for them, all of those things, including the nurse’s time, belong to him and are, therefore, his property?
JR: Yes. Where, exactly, is this going?
GOR: Mr. Rightsguy, what, if I may ask, do you do for a living?
JR, puffing out his chest with pride: I purchase firewood on a wholesale basis and then resell it.
GOR: Now I see why you used a broken arm as an example. So, when you purchase the firewood, it then becomes your property, correct?
GOR: And you can do whatever you want with it — use it, sell it, or even give it away, correct?
JR: Yeah, that’s right, but, if you’re anglin’ for free firewood, that ain’t going to happen.
GOR: I understand. The point is that you, and only you, have the right to determine what you do with your wood, don’t you agree?
JR: Of course. That’s the American way.
GOR: And how do you determine how much to sell your firewood for?
JR: Well, I start with the price that I paid for the wood and add to it.
GOR: What kinds of things do you add to it?
JR: Well, I have to go get the wood and then later deliver it. With the price of gas where it is, that ain’t cheap.
GOR: No, I don’t suppose it is. Is that all?
JR: No. I have to change the oil in my truck every now and then, and, because hauling wood is hard on a truck, it breaks down frequently, and I have to pay to have it repaired.
GOR: So that’s all?
JR: Not hardly. Every five years or so, I have to buy another used truck, cause the other one has done worn out. Also, the law says that I have to have insurance for my truck. Considering the nature of my business, that ain’t cheap, either.
GOR: My, that’s a lot. So that’s all?
JR: Boy, I can tell that you’ve never run a business before. You think I’m going to work eight to twelve hours every day, including Saturdays, and pay all of those expenses, and not have a little left over to pay myself?
GOR: No, I don’t suppose so. But, what about people who can’t pay? It’s the dead of winter. Won’t they freeze if they don’t have wood?
JR: What? You think I should work hard every day and pay all of those expenses out of my own pocket for free and not get paid? How long do you think I could do that? And then, when I go out of business, everybody has got to go without wood. I can’t take on everybody’s troubles. People have got to be responsible for theirselves.
GOR: That makes a lot of sense, but I’m wondering, though, just how you suppose that the doctor’s situation is any different than yours?
JR: You think you got me don’t you? Well, you don’t. I saw where you was headin’, and I was ready for you.
GOR: How do you mean?
JR: If I don’t charge people, then I won’t get paid, but the government will pay the doctor.
GOR: It will?
JR: Sure it will. Haven’t you heard about the new health care bill?
GOR: Yes, as a matter of fact, I have.
JR: There you go. Problem solved.
GOR: Or, is it?
GOR: I mean that you have made a good point, so let’s explore it a little, shall we?
JR: I really have to go. I got this . . .
GOR, interrupting: Mr. Rightsguy, you raised the issue. It would be impolite if you did not allow me to explore it with you. I would ask that you be patient just a bit longer, okay?
JR: Well, okay.
GOR: Good. Now, if the government pays the doctor, where does that money come from, and please do not say from the President’s stash?
JR: It comes from the people — from us — by taxes.
GOR: So, it comes from the people who we already said could not pay the doctor. If they can’t pay the doctor directly, how, then, can they pay the government to pay the doctor?
JR: Wait a minute, now. You’re twisting my words on me. That’s not what I meant.
GOR: I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention. What, then, did you mean?
JR: I meant that it comes from all of the people. Everywhere.
GOR: Now, that makes sense. I see what you mean. If the people who live here can’t pay the doctor for their health care, then, if the doctor is going to be paid, that money has to come from people who do not live here, correct?
JR: Now, you’ve got it! Well, I really have to go now . . .
GOR, interrupting yet again: Not quite so fast.
GOR: Do you mean that people outside of this town — people who may not have relatives in this town, who may not know a single person in this town, and who may not have ever even heard of this town — are going to voluntarily contribute toward funding health care here?
JR: No, of course not. Only a fool would expect them to do it voluntarily. We have to make them to do it!
GOR: By make, do you mean force?
JR: I do.
GOR: Under force of law with penalties and, perhaps even jail time, if they do not comply?
JR: You see, that’s the problem with our society. People have to be forced to do the right thing.
GOR: So, Mr. Rightsguy, if it’s the right thing, why don’t you just take your gun, find those people who are going to foot the bill for your health care and extract the money from them directly, thereby cutting out the middle man, so to speak?
JR: Are you friggin’ crazy?!!! They’d put me under the jail!
JR: It’s illegal, that’s why.
GOR: Why is it illegal for you to do it?
JR: You aren’t real bright, are you? Because, mister smart person, there’s a law against it.
GOR: Why is there a law against it?
JR: Because it’s wrong to steal from folks. We can’t have people going around taking things that don’t belong to them.
GOR: Are you saying, then, that people have a right to not be stolen from?
JR: Yeah, that’s right.
GOR: Or, to put it another way, to be secure in their property?
JR: I guess so.
GOR: Yeah, that makes sense. So, you are saying, then, that you do not have the right to take their property for your own benefit, but the government has the authority to do it on your behalf?
JR: Exactly. I think you are beginning to understand. Can you feel that bulb startin’ to glow a little?
GOR: I’m wondering though . . . where does the government get that authority?
JR: Why, from the people, of course. We own the government.
GOR: In other words, from people like you?
JR: That’s right.
GOR: Now, you have me confused.
JR: Why? Seems perfectly clear to me.
GOR: Well, you said a while ago that you do not have the right to seize the property of others for your own benefit.
GOR: If you do not have that right yourself, then how can you give the authority to government to do it for you?
JR: Humph! No matter what I say, you just can’t seem to get a perfectly simple little idea into that head of yours, and, frankly, I don’t have time to continue to try and help you. I’m a businessman, you know. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, so, as much as I’d like to stick around and teach you some more, I just can’t afford to.
Next time you need some firewood, be sure to call me. I’ll give you a good price. Can’t give it to you for free, though. I mean, I like you and all, but business is business. You understand, don’t you?
GOR: I most assuredly do, but I’m not at all certain that you do.
GOR: Nothing. Have a nice day.