Rand Paul is different than his father Ron Paul in the usual ways that younger men are different than older ones. Dr. Paul Sr. is blunt; Dr. Paul Jr. is hyperbolic. This week he's making headlines with hyperbole, comparing a recognized right to health care to slavery:
"With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me," Paul said recently in a Senate subcommittee hearing.
"It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses," Paul said, adding that there is "an implied use of force."
"If I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to healthcare, you have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free healthcare would be," Paul said.
Dr. Paul's errors are several. The first is one of red-meat hyperbole, certain to please the Tea Party rank and file but few others. Even Reason thinks this is over the top and ridiculous. Just as only Hitler is Hitler, only slavery is slavery; it takes a deft touch to make such a comparison without seeming a blustering fool, and Paul lacks that deft touch.
The second error is one of focus. Paul chooses to focus on the poor doctors, probably because he is one. But the government's not forcing anyone to be a doctor. The government is, however, forcing us to be taxpayers. Even under the most Clintonian, Canuk-scented scheme, there will be no jackbooted thugs marching doctors to the hospital at gunpoint to perform procedures on beneficiaries of government largesse. The jack-booted thugs will show up, however, if the mechanics and waitresses and cabbies and accountants and hairstylists and every other working citizen fails to pay taxes to support said largesse.
The core problem with envisioning heath care as a right — as opposed to (much more honestly) a public expenditure democratically decided and paid by forcible taxation — is that it fundamentally alters the nature of "rights." Our Constitution gives us rights to be free of government interference with specified activities. Even our "civil rights" statutes give us the right to be free of certain types of conduct by our fellow citizens. Rights are thus negative — they are the privilege to be left alone from certain types of conduct, like censorship and discrimination. Even the few rights that impose financial burdens on the state — like the right to counsel, and the right to conditions of imprisonment that do not fall to the level of cruel and unusual punishment — are ultimately negative. If the state — and our fellow taxpayers — don't want to pay, they don't have to try to put us in jail in the first place.
By contrast, the "right" to health care represents a positive right — an obligation imposed upon our fellow citizens. It is the "right" to demand that others work and sacrifice for our benefit. It confuses "freedom from" with entitlement.
Calling that "slavery", as Paul did, is an unnecessary rhetorical flourish that distracts from the point. But the point remains: we may agree as a society to force our citizens to work to fund agreed-upon benefits, but calling that resulting benefits a "right" dangerously blurs and erodes the meaning of that term.
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