Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the basic, fundamental, and inalienable rights defined by the United States Declaration of Independence and safeguarded by the government. Take a minute to note that healthcare, emergency room treatment, and prescription medicines are notably absent from that list. So are a few other essentials for life: food and shelter.
Of course, even if the government doesn’t provide your meal and your home, they provide many far less vital services — education and public parks, to name a few.
The question that lies at the heart of the healthcare debate, whether most people choose to acknowledge it or not, is whether healthcare falls under the first category of inalienable rights, the second category of essential needs that aren’t provided for (food and shelter), or the third group of provided nonessential services (education and parks). Debating the specifics of President Obama’s proposed healthcare reform is futile if this first, intrinsic question remains unanswered. But answering it requires knowing the reasons why the government doles out its money, so let’s begin.
The first group, inalienable rights, comprise the core tenets that make organized society possible for all. They define the boundaries that individuals act within before they encroach on the inalienable rights of their fellow men. At the most basic level, a government ensures that citizens are free, at all times and in all circumstances, to reach the limits of those boundaries. The corollary to this means that a government also ensures that no citizen encroaches upon the rights of another.
Those rights include life, that existence on Earth is mine, and that no one may take it from me without my consent. Liberty, that I am free to live my life unbridled, so long as I do not bridle others. The pursuit of happiness, which gives direction and meaning to the first two rights. And from draft declaration, the right to private property.
Notice that in the enumeration of these rights there is no mention of force, compulsion, or mandates. Such concepts are in fact anathema to the basic freedoms protected by these rights. This is, traditionally, what constitutes a “right” — not a tangible physical quantity, but a guarantee to freedom. Hence, the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness. Insurance and healthcare clearly do not fit neatly into this category.
Consider next the third group of nonessential government provided services. Education, fire departments, and public parks are all funded by some branch of the government. However, the reason for this has to do with the economic concept of an externality, not any moral obligation or righteous sense of purpose. All of society benefits from an educated populace, or when the fire department responds to keep my house from burning down my neighbors, or from the aesthetic benefits of a state or national park. The government either subsidizes or fully supports these activities to increase their prevalence and use. Indeed, as Cash-for-Clunkers has recently shown, people respond very well to economic incentives.
Universal healthcare, the key goal of the Obama plan and the reason given for its purpose, has little if any externality factor. As both the supporters and the detractors of the plan have stressed, healthcare is an extremely personal affair. While I benefit when my neighbor’s child learns history and how to read before he is of voting age, neither I nor society stand to substantially benefit if he receives a splint for his leg or a patch for his thumb. Moreover, remember that the purpose of any government subsidy or support (such as for education) is to encourage more of a desirable thing. No one with a medical ailment needs encouragement from a government to remedy their problem.
So that leaves us the second, thus far un-discussed category of truly essential services that the government does not provide for. Food and shelter are necessary for human survival, but, like healthcare, they benefit only a single individual as opposed to society as a whole. Without any positive externality to the rest of society, the government has no business in the housing or food markets, and current established excursions are simply matters of income distribution, robbing from the most productive taxpayers to give to the least. They serve no purpose other than fulfilling some sense of moral duty (or community, as Barack Obama has called it), and benefit only individuals, not society as a whole.
Like shelter, healthcare is not an innate right. It is a commodity to be purchased and valued like any other, because unlike the inalienable rights of liberty and life, healthcare cannot exist without the medical professionals that support it. Like anyone who values their work, they will demand a payment for their services, with the price being set by the demand for such a service.
Some claim that such a market based pricing scheme leaves the poor without access to healthcare. This is patently false. As a college student, a beachfront property in the Carolinas is far beyond what I can afford. However, access to that property is still universal, as anyone who wants it can walk into a realtor and pay for it. The same is true for healthcare. Not being able to afford something does not mean that you are discriminated against or that such a good or service is unfairly out of reach to you. It merely means that you need to be more useful to earn more money.
Comparing a luxury home to practical and basic health services may sound absurd, as human beings need healthcare far more than they need an ocean breeze. But this country was not founded on meeting the needs of its citizens. The inalienable rights guarantee only the freedom of thought and action. There is no guarantee to own property, but merely the guarantee of being able claim ownership of earned property.
Calling healthcare a right is improper and debases the fundamental rights that make it possible for America to have the most advanced medical system on the planet. Healthcare is a need, not a right, and any attempt to give it to those who would not pay for it robs the productive of their right to property. To each according to his need may be a mantra, but it is not a very durable or proven one.