Back in the 1980s, a rock group called the Beastie Boys issued a single entitled You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party. I was in college at the time. It was one of the seminal events that turned me away from popular music.
No one remembers the Beastie Boys anymore, but the group’s misunderstanding of rights theory lives today, especially in the current health care debate. Take, for instance, the claim made by St. Vincent’s Health System Chief Executive John O’Neil to the Hoover (Alabama) Chamber of Commerce last week that uninsured Americans deserve 100 percent coverage of health care and that society’s inability to provide it creates monetary and human costs.
"The uninsured," he said, "are driving up our health care costs because they oftentimes don’t seek care before it’s too late, or it’s so far into their disease process that it costs thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars." He added that, in 2006, more than 18,000 Americans died "purely because they didn’t have health insurance."
In responding to such arguments, it is hard to know where to start. Let’s first consider Mr. O’Neil’s concept of rights, which seems to be informed more by the Beastie Boys than a natural rights tradition developed over the centuries largely by the Church that sponsors St. Vincent’s. This tradition identifies two categories of rights, one that is consistent with a free and virtuous society, and another that sows division that, taken to the extreme, threatens civilization itself. The first of these identifies rights that are inherent in the human person and therefore precede governments. Governments cannot grant them. They can only take them away. Sometimes referred to as negative rights, they are only partially enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and especially in its first 10 amendments. These include your rights to your life, liberty, and property.
Then there are other rights that no one is born with. In order to exercise these rights, individuals become claimants to the wealth and labor of others. Sometimes referred to as positive rights, these rights were not spelled out in the Constitution, which is silent on issues pertaining to education, housing, or even digital television. Nonetheless, the legitimization of these types of rights in the 20th century has contributed to the centralized and overweening welfare and warfare state that the federal government has become today.
Mr. O’Neil proclaims such positive rights in the realm of health care, and it is not a new argument. Indeed, previous arguments along these lines justified government interventions that have increased costs and hindered a free market in health care so that, today, 75 percent of all health care spending in the United States comes from government. Note well: Individuals like Mr. O’Neil will gain personally if they are successful in extending this argument, even if this requires further threatening the well-being of those others who are forced to finance it.
That’s what happens when a right demanded by Peter requires positive action by Paul.
Consider as well the claim that 18,000 people died in 2006 "purely because they did not have health insurance." Really? It had nothing to do with (say) lifestyle choices, or a choice freely taken to spend money on goods other than insurance? This is a purely ridiculous statistic. It is sad state of affairs that it gets bandied about without the benefit of being fact-checked by a watchdog media.
But much of the media, as well as health care systems, insurance companies, and federal government, have an incentive to frame the health care debate in ways that benefit them, and in this case it means whether the health care bill should incorporate a little socialism, or a lot. Left out are the economists — at least those disconnected from special interests — who have much to offer that would improve the health care system. These involve eliminating (i) all government licensing of the medical profession that exist primarily to restrict the supply of medical personnel (ii) insurance companies’ antitrust exemptions and allowing interstate coverage, and (iii) the deadly Food and Drug Administration that serves the interests of Big Pharma over those of the sick.
None of these recommendations are likely in a political environment in which special interests receive the loot while the costs are socialized. From that perspective, what is considered health care "reform" today is nothing new. It will continue until citizens once again appreciate one of the natural rights listed in the Magna Carta — the right to be left alone.
October 24, 2009
Christopher Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University.