A mandatory "right," imposed by the majority?

When I saw the title of Senator Bernie Sanders' piece -- "Health Care Is a Right, Not a Privilege" at Real Clear Politics, I was irritated, because I disagree wholeheartedly. But when I clicked on the link, expecting a philosophical explanation to dissect, I found nothing except a bare and unexplained premise that rights are created by majority rule:

As the health care debate heats up in Washington, we as a nation have to answer two very fundamental questions. First, should all Americans be entitled to health care as a right and not a privilege - which is the way every other major country treats health care and the way we respond to such other basic needs as education, police and fire protection? Second, if we are to provide quality health care to all, how do we accomplish that in the most cost-effective way possible?

I think the answer to the first question is pretty clear, and one of the reasons that Barack Obama was elected president. Most Americans do believe that all of us should have health care coverage, and that nobody should be left out of the system. The real debate is how we accomplish that goal in an affordable and sustainable way...

Sounds like Global Warming: the debate over theory has been won, and we're now at the implementation stage.

But there's a huge problem: even if the majority thinks socialized medicine is desirable, that does not make health care a right. In the American philosophical tradition, rights are innate to human beings, and are defined as what government cannot take away. Those things the government might decide to give citizens by various forms of income redistribution cannot be said to be rights as they are not innate, but come and go, and are subject to the vagaries of the political process. Whatever citizens might vote to give themselves or vote to discontinue giving to themselves are not rights.

So, even if a majority wants to socialize the health care industry (itself a debatable point), that could change with a new administration elected with a pledge to reprivatize it. It is no more a "right" than a new highway project, and a majority being for it right now does not transform it into a right.

Aside from his recital of "majority rule" (or the even more irrelevant claim that "every other major country" does what he favors) Sanders offers no theory under which "health care" is a "right." I was hoping he'd at least cite the Constitution's "general welfare" or "necessary and proper" clauses. Or maybe the Declaration's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." A good argument can be made that citizens have a right to buy whatever* health care they can afford (because after all, it's their money), but that no more confers a right to have others pay for it than the Second Amendment guarantees a "right" to have the government provide each citizen with a gun at taxpayers' expense! To create such a novel right, the Constitution would have to be amended. But in any case, Sanders didn't say that. He offers no actual theory of a "right to health care" for me to dispute.

I'm very disappointed.

* Interestingly, the right to buy only the type of health care you want and no more would be taken away by state-mandated socialized health care programs. Saying you have to have something is precisely the opposite of a right. If the government mandated church attendance and provided all citizens with churches, would that be called a "right to spiritual care"?

If that's not absurd enough for you, how about state-mandated marriage for all citizens, under the name of the "right to marriage"?

Things which the government makes us do are not rights. I hope people aren't dumb enough to fall for such nonsense.

MORE: Regarding the idea of democratically voting away freedom, I think this guest writer at Samizdata nails it:

What makes Americans' surrender to statism so shameful is that we freely chose this course in direct contravention of our founding principles.
(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

Is there a right to choose not to be free?

I don't know, but I'm not sure I like the idea of others being able to do it on my behalf.

Isn't surrendering to statism bad enough without calling it a right?

Really, if this keeps up, they'll eventually call slavery "the right to work."

posted by Eric on 06.10.09 at 08:47 AM


If health care is a "right", that implies that any person I meet is obligated, on some level, to fix whatever is broken about me, if I want them to. If they desire payment, they are refusing to give me my rights.

There is also the question of defining "health care". Do I have the right to someone else's Band-Aids? How about a new titanium alloy prosthetic leg: is that my right?

And what of my mental health? If I don't think I'm crazy, is someone still obligated to fix me? Crazy people can't really judge whether they want to be sane, can they.

Do I have a right to bariatric surgery to shrink my stomach? Liposuction?

If our blood types are the same, do I have a right to a transfusion of your blood? What about your kidney?

Loren Heal   ·  June 10, 2009 10:06 AM

Our society has confused a number of basic concepts,
Rights, privileges, responsibility, accountability, for any of these concepts to work all must be in balance.
We seem to want rights/privileges without any responsibility or accountability.
Europe and Canada are well down that road, Health care is the biggest and fastest rising government expense in these countries, EMS is swamped with minor problems (first aid in emergency wards) while serious patients wait for hours (average wait over 8 h) to get required treatment.
I do not believe the government is in the better position than I or my Dr. to determine what I need for health care.

hugh   ·  June 10, 2009 10:41 AM

It's funny, apparently the Constitution (that delineates our rights)is silent on abortion and health care and we have a right to them but, even though the 2nd Amendment says the gov't can't take my guns, I don't have a right to own guns.

And right there is the reason I vote against Democrats, you have to ignore reality in order to believe some of the stuff they believe.

Veeshir   ·  June 10, 2009 12:57 PM

The right to an abortion is grounded in an implied right to privacy. But even there, does anyone contend that the right to abortion is a right to make other people pay for it?

(Er, maybe I shouldn't ask...)

Eric Scheie   ·  June 10, 2009 2:10 PM

"x is right not a privilege" is not any form of argument, it hovers between being a blatant assertion, or in the case of something as emotionally charged as health care, and emotional appeal. Absolutely anything can be inserted for "x" in the above. Back when Hilarycare was an item I used to illustrate my point by handing out leaflets in Harvard Square that demanded free laundry. After all, clean clothing is a right, not a privilege. The really unsettling part was that some people took me seriously.

Man Mountain Molehill   ·  June 10, 2009 11:59 PM

Way way back when Phil Donahue was a daytime talk show host, I tried to figure out what kind of health care could possibly be a right.

In the end, vaccination was the only thing I could come up with. Even there, I couldn't justify it as a right, but I could justify it as a public good because of the herd immunity aspect.

Other than that, any attempt at trying to identify a right to any kind of health care exploded exponentially to a right to all and every kind of health care. This would include those treatments which have no scientific evidence of efficacy... in other words, woo.

Do we, as citizens, want to be responsible for every medical or alternative treatment available for everyone in the country?

I don't.

Donna B.   ·  June 11, 2009 1:05 AM

Sanders' position depends on a widely accepted fallacy that dates back to Andrew Jackson: the equation of individual freedom with majority rule.

I saw this contradiction at the age of six, and no argument I've heard since has dislodged my conviction that unlimited majority rule is tyranny of the sort that the U.S. was founded to eliminate.

Brett   ·  June 11, 2009 8:26 AM

The right to an abortion is grounded in an implied right to privacy
Yes, "implied".

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing against legalized abortion, I'm just noting that they're ignoring the words that are in the document (2nd amendment) and "seeing" the ones they want to see. A very human reaction.

They also outlaw growing pot on your property and smoking it on your property because of the interstate commerce clause.

Eh, the founding fathers tried to make the Constitution idiot-proof so we just went ahead and made better idiots.

Veeshir   ·  June 11, 2009 11:25 AM

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