You are here

Is health care a right? The question is irrelevant, but yes, it is.

Is health care a right? In his recent odious Wall Street Journal editorial, John Mackey argues that "A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This “right” has never existed in America."

(Markey is co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc., and his Thatcher-quoting article promoting a "you're own your own, buddy" version of health care has spawned a boycott movement.)

Now, if Mr. Mackey had actually read the Constitution, he would have seen Amendment IX: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." I.e., the fact that a right is not enumerated, can not be used to argue that it does not exist.

There is, for example, no right to privacy mentioned in the Constitution. That does not mean that one does not exist.

And something may not be a "right", and yet might be expected as a basic government service. In cases like Warren v. District of Columbia and Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the courts have found that there is no right to a police response -- yet we expect tax-funded, government-provided cops to show up if we dial 911. There is no "right to food", but a government that does not deal with hunger and famine is going to at minimum have a lot of crime, and quite possibly political unrest -- hungry people are ready-made followers for radicals, and so we have food stamps and agricultural policy.

Health care is a public good; like police "protection" (at least, in theory; we'll punt for now on the problems of contemporary policing and whether it does more harm than good), agricultural policy (ditto), fire fighters, roads, etcetera, it benefits the whole population, not just those who use it directly.

So the question of whether or not health care is a right turns out to be irrelevant; as a public good, it ought to be provided by the state when private means fail -- as they have resoundingly in the U.S. for health care.

Still, the question is interesting. What does it mean for something to be a right? A right can exist as an ethical truth, or as a legal principle; for example, we can say that the people of Iran are entitled to free speech, as a moral fact, while still recognizing that the government of Iran does not recognize this as a legal or political fact. Contrary-wise, we might say that members of the KKK have the legal right to spew their hatred and filth, even while we argue that they're an immoral bunch of cretins who ought to shut their pieholes.

With regard to health care, the legal fact is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in Article 25, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." The UDHR is a statement of principles, not enforceable legislation -- but then, so is the Declaration of Independence that Mr. Markey cites.

So, yes: you do have a right to health care enshrined in a fundamental legal document.

As an ethical issue, the only useful formulation of "natural rights" I've found, the one that doesn't rely on supernaturalism or other questionable axioms, is from Kerry Thornley's Zenarchy:

The Seven Noble Natural Rights

There are at least seven natural rights, or the Tao of human activity in society possesses seven attributes, or people are like machines only in the respect that they don't work good if you neglect their maintenance requirements.

What are the maintenance requirements of the human being? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

Keeping us confused and divided against one another about these rights, the multinational power elite teaches us in America that only life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights. In socialist nations they promote the view that only food, clothing, shelter and medical care are rights.

We are further encouraged to argue about whether rights must be earned or whether it is the duty of the government to guarantee them. Everyone necessarily struggles for their rights, and no government can ever guarantee anything except death and taxes.

All that bickering begs the relevant question: What can we do in voluntary cooperation to see that our natural rights, our intimate functional needs, are respected? Without that much, human beings are incapable of behaving as constructively rational and loving members of any population.

So yes, as an ethical matter, health care is a right based on human nature.

It's a public good, a legal right, and an ethical right. There is no excuse for everyone in an advanced society to not have ready access to health care. None at all.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

User login

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.