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

Anthony Randazzo is director of economic research for Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. His research portfolio is regularly evolving, and he maintains a wide interest in economic policy at both a domestic and international level.

Randazzo is also managing director of the Pension Integrity Project, which provides technical assistance to public sector retirement system stakeholders who are seeking to prevent pension plan insolvency. His research focus on the national public sector pension crisis has a dual focus of identifying the systemic factors that cause public officials to underfund pension obligations as well as studying the processes by which meaningful pension reform can be accomplished. Within the Project he leads the analytics team that develops independent, third party actuarial analysis to stakeholders considering changes to public sector retirement systems.

In addition, Randazzo writes about the moral foundations of economic theory, and is currently developing research on the ways that the moral intuitions of economists influence their substantive findings on topics like income inequality, immigration, or labor policy.

Randazzo's work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Barron's, Bloomberg View, The Washington Times, The Detroit News, Chicago Sun-Times, Orange-County Register, RealClearMarkets, Reason magazine and various other online and print publications.

During his tenure at Reason he has published substantive research on housing finance, financial services regulation, and various other aspects of economic policy at the federal level. And he has written regularly on labor economics, tax policy, privatization, and Turkish-U.S. political and economic issues.

Randazzo has also testified before numerous state and local legislative bodies on pension policy matters, as well as before the House Financial Services Committee on topics related to housing policy and government-sponsored enterprises.

He holds a multidisciplinary M.A. in behavioral political economy from New York University.

Follow Anthony Randazzo on Twitter @anthonyrandazzo