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.