Our friend TJIC, discussing the issue of government-provided health care, finds fault with this rather conclusory claim in an essay in The Economist:
Everyone requires certain goods and services, such as food and shelter. There exists an implicit social contract that people who cannot afford these goods will get them from the state.
I agree with TJIC that it is rather stark to make that claim without backing it up. As a nation, and as the several states and municipalities, we have elected officials who have voted for legislation that gives out a certain amount of food and shelter under various complicated conditions. We have not, however, recognized any sort of universal right to food or shelter. Many people who lack funds to purchase food and shelter on their own (owing to their own failings or to inexorable social forces, depending upon which mouth-frother you listen to) have to catch-as-catch-can through a patchwork of government and private handouts which vary with time and funding and circumstance. Note that for the purpose of this post I'm not making a judgment about whether we should have such a social compact; I'm saying it's just flat wrong to say we have one.
This raises the issue of rights. One now-familiar slogan is that "health care is a right" or "health care is not a right." If health care is to be a right, I submit it could only be a statutory right — that is, one we agree to confer upon ourselves through our political process. It's not a constitutional right, which is what people most often mean when they talk about having a right to something. There is no credible interpretation of the constitution, and no line of jurisprudence, supporting the notion that the general public has a constitutional right to health care. (There is a right to certain people not in the general public — for instance, if I am jailed involuntarily by the government, it is very probable that the government is constitutionally required to provide health care to me.)
Health care, as an affirmative right, would be different than any other constitutional right. For the most part constitutional rights establish what the government can't do to us, or how they must do things to us to the extent they do them. The government can't restrict my speech for the most part, and can't conduct unreasonable searches of me. Even rights that appear to be affirmative are only conditional restrictions on the manner in which the government may act. For instance, I have a right to government-appointed counsel if I am prosecuted for a crime. But that's only because the government is choosing to prosecute me — if the government did not, I would have no right to counsel. Similarly, though providing me with due process of law costs money, I only have a right to it to the extent that the government decides to subject me to some proceeding or burden. Similarly, though the government has to pay for school for African-American children if it pays for school for white children, it need not pay for any school at all.
So here's a question — can anyone identify a constitutional right that could fairly be compared to an affirmative right to health care for all? Is there any constitutional right that obligates the government to spend money on me, non-conditionally?
The problem I see with the concept of health care as a right is that it tends to confer power on the government, not limit government power. Recognizing a constitutional right to health care necessarily recognizes the government's power — and obligation — to take money out of my pocket by threat of force in order to pay for health care for other people. That is rather unlike other rights.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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