Rights And Responsibilities

After reading yet another article by one of our progressive legislators, I feel compelled to respond. The article discussed various means of paying for universal health coverage. I am disturbed by some apparent assumptions about rights and responsibilities.

The author, like many people today, seems to take for granted that health care is a basic right. While I will wholeheartedly agree with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I don't put health care in the same category.

Part of the problem is that the word 'rights' covers a wide range of concepts. To clarify the distinction in this situation, I'll use two different terms to distinguish between different types of rights for the purpose of this essay:

  • Freedoms - these are sometimes referred to as 'natural rights', and include freedom of speech, travel, association, and property ownership. These are the things that a person might do that don't impose obligations on others (other than the obligation not to interfere). Exercise of these rights is fundamental to a free and healthy society. Our Declaration Of Independence asserts that the purpose of governments is to protect these rights.
  • Entitlements - these are typically conferred by government, and involve an obligation on the part of someone else to provide or pay for the right. The right to counsel or trial by jury are examples, and there are many others.

Because they don't impose duties on others, freedoms can be essentially unrestricted. For example, there's no practical or physical limit on the amount of free speech or free association that a person might have. Societies can and do place some restrictions on these freedoms, but our constitution specifically limits the government's power to interfere with these freedoms. As a result, we as a country have broader scope to enjoy these freedoms than many other countries.

Entitlements are different. The fulfillment of an entitlement for one person diminishes to some extent the freedom of others. If you are to receive counsel as an accused person, a lawyer must be found to represent you, even if there is something else the lawyer would rather do. The property of others must also be taken by the government in order to compensate the lawyer. Society may decide that the benefits of an entitlement are important enough to balance the costs, but resources are finite. Unlike freedoms, entitlements must by nature be limited. For example, the right to counsel cannot mean that each accused person is entitled to large team of the best lawyers in the country.

There are several things that everyone needs to some degree - food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care. These are real and serious needs, but the government can only satisfy them through an entitlement. A society may decide to establish an entitlement, but that inevitably involves imposing a corresponding obligation. There can be no inherent right to have your needs satisfied by others.

This is the problem with entitlements, and with referring to an entitlement as a 'right'. When people use this language, they're not arguing that you have the freedom to pay for your own health care - what is actually being suggested is that you should be entitled to have someone else pay for your health care.

This is a perilous and slippery slope. How much health care are you entitled to? Who decides? Calling it a 'right' implies that there should be few limits, if any.

It is important to make a distinction between conferring entitlements on healthy adults versus those unable to care for themselves. In an affluent and compassionate society, provisions can and should be made to provide these necessities to those in need. In some cases, these might be acts of individual charity, and in others it may be decided that society as a whole will collectively provide help. We can and should take care of the infirm, disabled, and children.

Children in particular are not able to provide for their own needs. While I believe that adults should be free to make their own choices (good and bad) and live with the consequences, I also believe that society should as far as possible ensure that children have access to adequate nutrition, health care, and education.

It's also important to make the distinction between a decision to provide help and a 'right'. If my neighbor is hungry and I have more than I need, I may feel a moral obligation to help. That does not mean he has the right to take my food.

The author argues that health care for the poor should be paid for by the wealthy. This is also a common argument, but the underlying assumptions deserve a second look. The rhetoric that usually surrounds this idea carries with it the implication that possession of wealth is unjustified and at least a little immoral. Use of government as a tool to confiscate that wealth and redistribute it to the less well off is therefore justifiable.

While I will join with the progressives in the denunciation of unearned wealth, the opportunity to benefit from honest endeavor is a fundamental cornerstone of the American dream. The individual who studies more, goes to school longer, works harder, and takes more risks will probably end up more wealthy than those who do not. This is as it should be - wealth in this case is the measure of the individual's contribution to society. The arbitrary reallocation of this wealth to those who have not earned it is robbery, plain and simple.

Basic human dignity rests on the ability to make meaningful choices and accept real consequences. The idea that a healthy adult can expect someone else to take care of them is destructive to both parties. Any policy that reduces the rewards for productive behavior while also reducing the risks of irresponsible behavior will have predictable results.

Confusing needs with rights makes good rhetoric, but poor policy. We need to reassert a philosophy of government that enhances individual freedom and responsibility and empowers people to make important decisions about their lives. Taking our money to buy health care for us or to satisfy any other individual need is a step in the opposite direction.