Out of Control Policy Blog

Questioning the "Right" to Health Care

A British doctor, Anthony Daniels, had a piece in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week questioning the sometimes assumed "right" to health care. A friend of mine asked me about this issue last weekend, when she was surprised to learn that not only was I opposed to the current health care reform plan in Congress on economic grounds, but that I don't believe there is a human right to health care any more than I believe there is a human right to groceries at Whole Foods.

Daniels, writing under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, makes my point better than I can:

People sometimes argue in favor of a universal human right to health care by saying that health care is different from all other human goods or products. It is supposedly an important precondition of life itself. This is wrong: There are several other, much more important preconditions of human existence, such as food, shelter and clothing.

Everyone agrees that hunger is a bad thing (as is overeating), but few suppose there is a right to a healthy, balanced diet, or that if there was, the federal government would be the best at providing and distributing it to each and every American.

Now, some people will counter this by arguing that we offer food stamps to the poor and have homeless shelters that offer food. To begin with, this is a misnomer because most charity for the homeless is driven by the private sector. Food stamps are merely a monetary form of redistributing wealth to the lower class. The same argument can be made that giving unemployment checks to those that drink beer is a recognition that there is a right to drink alcohol. Oh, and food stamps have been known to buy more than just the essentials. Just ask any grocer near the projects in New York.

But the real point that Daniels-Darlymple is making is not about a right to any food, but a right to a "healthy, balanced diet." That is not what homeless shelters offer (most of the time). That is not the goal of food stamps. That's not what's driving unemployment checks. Those subsidy programs, besides having a perverse effect on the drive to produce, offer the bare minimum for survival. And the bare minimum for survival is not what the health care insurance debate is about.

We already have that for everyone. Anyone who is dieing must be cared for by an emergency room, even without insurance or the ability to pay. Every major city has some clinic offering free health services, although with long lines and bare minimum care. The point is that any one can survive in America, it just isn't convenient.

The notion that I want to combat is this perceived notion that there is a "right" to have someone pay for your expensive care. We don't have water bill insurance. We don't have "deleted that Word file with all my passwords" insurance. But because health care can be so expensive, with procedures that can bankrupt families or be too much to get the best care, companies started offering a deal. You pay in a certain amount each month to a pool, and then if something happens, you get to draw out of that pool based on certain conditions. It is a system of having another party cover the costs for your care. It is not a "right", human or otherwise.

Which "right" seems more reasonable to you: the right to keep the money that you make from a job you do, or the right to have other people pay for the cost of your health care because you can't afford it. Sure, it would be great if everyone had coverage. But it seems the thing to do is figure out ways that we can reduce the cost of health care, not necessarily provide insurance to everyone. The less we tax people (taking the money we make) the more money people will have to purchase insurance on their own. The less we tax medical care providers, the less they will charge. The less we regulate the drug industry, the easier it will be to develop medicines, and the more competition in the drug market there will be, bringing down prices.

There are ways to reform the system, things we can do to help people. Just because there isn't a morally discernable right to health care doesn't mean we leave people to die in the streets. But to approach the health care debate from that perspective means trying to heal a symptom, and ignoring the disease.

Anthony Randazzo is Director of Economic Research

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Comments to "Questioning the "Right" to Health Care":

ArlenP | July 30, 2009, 4:21pm | #

If you enjoyed that essay by Dalrymple, you might enjoy this excerpt from his 2001 book An Intelligent Person's Guide to Medicine, which contains a longer treatment of the subject: http://blog.skepticaldoctor.com/2009/07/26/a-right-to-healthcare.aspx

Mr. Snarky | July 31, 2009, 12:39am | #

I'm sorry, but this is a horrible argument. You say that the bare minimum for survival isn't what the health care debate is all about, since anyone already has access to emergency room care regardless of ability to pay.

But this is a terribly inefficient way to provide the minimum health care needed for survival. Costs from this get spread out to the rest of us, and using emergency room care as health care of last resort prevents the poor from getting preventative care that saves costs in the long run by staving off major, expensive procedures.

If you really think health care isn't a right, then you should argue for repealing the law that emergency rooms must care for people regardless of ability to pay.

If you're not prepared to take this position, then you've already acknowledged that health care is a right, and you should be discussing how to provide that right in an efficient way, which the current system (specifically emergency rooms providing non-emergency procedures for the uninsured poor) does not do.

ArlenP | July 31, 2009, 12:13pm | #

Talk about a horrible argument? The poor in America already have access to Medicaid, and they can improve and manage their own health to some extent by living healthy lives.

And just because we decide to force emergency rooms to care for the poor doesn't mean that the poor have an inalienable right to that care, much less that everyone does. We do a good deed by choosing to help people, but that doesn't mean that they are entitled to help by right. Good grief.

JasonJ | August 8, 2009, 11:37pm | #

You make some good points in your argument. I agree that there is no such thing as a "human right" to universal health care anymore than there is such thing as a human right to anything (as established by some higher authority other than ourselves). Nonetheless, the free market works some of the time but leaves many people to suffer when they can't afford to live in it. Lowering costs will never be enough for someone who has no money. Regardless of the reasons why they have no money (as there are many beyond the fact that they are simply lazy). Some people lack the ability to take care of themselves even regardless of how much money they have. Lowering costs will not address their plight either. A "human right" designation is not necessary to fight for something that helps others. Of course, it's easy to argue in favor of a system that you benefit from, for as many reasons out side of your control as inside your control. I'm sure that if you walked a mile in the shoes of someone who has lost a loved one due to inability to pay for the services that existed and could help them, you might think differently. It is for that reason I fight for improving the system, and oppose your pure free market solution. There is nothing unreasonable about that.

Ski | August 23, 2009, 7:28pm | #

"The less we tax people (taking the money we make) the more money people will have to purchase insurance on their own. The less we tax medical care providers, the less they will charge. The less we regulate the drug industry, the easier it will be to develop medicines, and the more competition in the drug market there will be, bringing down prices."

This is common sense. If insurance costs less, more people will purchase it. This will lead to more jobs in insurance companies. If drugs cost less due to more competition and more people buying them because they now have cheaper insurance, this will boost drug-company jobs and investing. Why is this so difficult for the Left to figure out?

As for "rights," I think health care fits into "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Mind you, it's not insurance we have a right to, but acceptable health care. But where is the bottom line, the lowest acceptable limit, for "acceptable health care"?

But then again, I guess the Left don't support unborn infants' right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . .

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