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COLUMN

It’s Good for You

Kris Schnee

It’s an election year again, so of course everyone has their hands out. It’s especially easy this time for politicians on both sides to promise massive benefits for their constituents because of the Phantom Surplus, a hypothetical government revenue boom predicted with the assumption that the economy will always be as healthy as it is now. For all we know, 2001 could be another 1929, and yet our federal government continues to expand inexorably -- not just spending more now, but establishing massive new programs which we, the taxpayers, will have to fund regardless of whether the economy remains strong.

Case in point: health care. Having failed to enact a national health care system all at once in his early days as president, Bill Clinton seems to be trying to implement it one piece at a time. His latest move involves prescription drugs. He and Congressional Democrats are now pushing for taxpayer-subsidized medicine for the elderly, as though it were a “right.” How compassionate.

The drug program is really a brilliant move on the part of the Democrats. First, it comes during an election year when the Democrats risk having Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House simultaneously. In the short term, Clinton’s party can pick up votes by promising to give away more “free” benefits to people who did not earn it, in the name of fairness. If Republicans oppose taxpayer-funded drugs, Democrats can (as they did in 1996) publicly accuse them of trying to murder old people. And in fact, Republicans have already given ground; the House has accepted a small version of Clinton’s proposal.

Catering to the elderly is a growth industry, of course. With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, the falling population growth rate, and continuing advances in medical technology, the oldest segment of the population will accumulate more and more political power over time. Whichever party promises the elderly the most gain at others’ expense will probably have their allegiance.

It is in the nature of government programs to expand. Already Social Security is known as the “third rail of politics” -- touch it and die. Once any new program has a constituency of people who benefit from it, it is very hard to cut the program back. It becomes an entitlement, as though the money being funneled from taxpayers to the recipients rightfully belonged to the recipients. If the government officially gets into the business of dealing drugs, the Democrats will have built another permanent expansion of government power at the expense of our liberty. Whatever Clinton calls his program, he will have established much of health care as a legal right.

There is one small fault in the argument that the government should provide prescription drugs for the elderly: why just the elderly, we might ask? Once they start receiving drugs, why shouldn’t everyone else have the same benefit? “Good point!” a Democrat could answer. The government should take over the entire pharmaceutical market and tell everyone what medication they can have! Welcome to Iron Fist health care.

But there is a much bigger fault in any argument that declares a new “right” for the government to enforce: why is something a right, anyway?

We’ve already concocted a slew of new rights in the past few years, such as the “right to privacy.” Mr. Clinton has publicized his consumer-protection laws as the “Patients’ Bill of Rights” and “Airline Travelers’ Bill of Rights.” We have cheapened the original Bill of Rights and Locke’s defense of life, liberty, and property rights. What do “rights” even mean any more, when a politician can make them up as excuses for new social programs?

This confusion is what we get for mythologizing legal rights into moral imperatives, things we “have to do” without any real reason being provided for them. Men in the eighteenth century declared that human rights are a innate yet invisible property of all people, impossible to detect or measure. That system isn’t very useful for talking about “rights” to education or health care or anything else.

If we could look at “rights” as the legal expressions of our deepest values, as the things we are willing to enshrine beyond the reach of even a Congress or President, then we could talk intelligently about the prescription drug movement. Are drugs for the poor so important to us that we want to establish a permanent promise to give them away, no matter what happens to the economy? Think carefully before supporting the latest nationalized health care package: prosperity is fleeting, but bureaucracy is forever.