[Editor’s Note: Many thanks to John Flo for introducing us to Jared, and to Jared for contributing this paper. Jared Hatch was raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and is the oldest of six siblings. He recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Latin American Languages. Currently, Jared works as an intern in the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation. Jared most enjoys being an older brother and spending time with his family.]
“In America, health care is not just a privilege, but a right for every single American.”(1) President Obama’s recent statement from Miami Dade College resonates with many millennials. According to the University of Illinois at Chicago, “Millennials, more than previous generations, believe affordable health care is a right all Americans should have.”(2) As a millennial myself, I want to provide another perspective. I believe there is a difference between rights and needs. While rights can be qualified as needs, needs are not always rights. All people do need health care, but that does not make health care a right.
The most fundamental and important function of a right is to protect self-determination. Rich, poor, educated, illiterate, healthy or sick, you can act how you believe you should—insofar as you do not deliberately harm others. A right allows you to act according to your conscience regardless of your circumstances. We live in ever changing environments, situations and circumstances and it is impossible to completely control all of those external factors. However, we can control our response to any set of unique circumstances. This is why rights are among the most fundamental of all human needs because they protect our freedom to respond to life’s situations. Rights are inalienable—they are not a result of circumstance. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness each point to the truth that we all possess the same rights to act within our circumstances.
Additional needs enhance one’s capacity to act in any given situation. Good health care, for example, increases one’s capacity to work, play, and live by changing someone’s circumstances from sick to healthy. Both rights and needs are essential to humanity, but needs do not possess the inalienable nature of rights. Some emphasize that health care protects people’s right to life. But the rhetoric surrounding health care implies addressing much more than the immediate right to life. The World Health Organization, for example, asserts that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.”(3) Such a standard would certainly increase individual capacity, but is it really a fundamental human right?
A frequent and compelling liberal argument is that “rights without capacity are meaningless.” First, note that this statement in and of itself establishes a distinction between rights and capacity. It states that in addition to rights an individual needs capacity. It wouldn’t make sense to say “rights without rights are meaningless.”(4) Second, rights are very meaningful even without complete capacity. Is a handicapped boy’s life meaningless because of his diminished capacity? Of course not! His right to life is just as valuable as any other’s. Furthermore, the handicapped child is just as entitled to freedom from enslavement as a perfectly healthy child. The value of a right is independent of capacity. That’s what makes it inalienable. Capacity can certainly enhance one’s life, but the lack of it cannot make life meaningless. Third, it is true that capacity has a tremendous influence on an individual’s future. But we should remember that people in general are born with an incredible amount of capacity. Excluding extreme cases, even the least capable of people have the ability to achieve remarkable goals, especially with the advanced technology and information we enjoy today.
Why does it matter to label health care as a need instead of a right? So what? We still need it. The reason is simple. How we view health care will determine how we provide it. Calling health care a right does not make it so, but it can change how we handle it—diminishing our actual rights in the process.
For example, according to Avik Roy, Forbes’ Opinion Editor, “The average 20-year-old consumes about $700 a year in health care, but will be forced to pay $4,000 a year, or more, for health insurance.”(5) The real right is the ability to choose our health care. The need posing as a right is the particular amount of care we require. In this situation, the government is giving priority to individual needs and capacity instead of rights. While this is clearly not a sinister act, it does demonstrate how fundamental rights can be compromised in the name of a universal “right” to health care.
Our government was primarily instituted to secure rights, but it also promotes the general welfare through publicly providing certain needs such as firemen, parks, roads, etc. Health care is more closely associated with these publicly provided needs and should be treated as such. In the current health care debate, rights must ultimately take precedence over health care, but that doesn’t mean that health care has no place in our society. We do need health care! The public discussion should focus on how health care can be provided while protecting inalienable rights.
(1) Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Affordable Care Act,” Office of the Press Secretary, October 20, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/10/20/remarks-president-affordable-care-act (accessed October 21, 2016).
(2) University of Illinois at Chicago, 5 Ways Millennials View Healthcare Differently, http://healthinformatics.uic.edu/resources/articles/5-ways-millennials-view-healthcare-differently/ (accessed Sept 29, 2016).
(3) World Health Organization, Constitution of the World Health Organization, 2005 http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/, (original work published in 1946), (accessed September 29, 2016).
(4) John Halpin and Conor P. Williams, The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America: Part One of the Progressive Tradition Series, April 2010, https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2010/04/pdf/progressiveintellectualism.pdf, (accessed September 29, 2016).
(5) Avik Roy, Yes, Health Care is a Right – An Individual Right, March 28, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2013/03/28/yes-health-care-is-a-right-an-individual-right/#222db5971301, (accessed September 30, 2016).