Friday, September 11, 2009

Wish Fulfillment

No one should ever die for lack of health care. No one should ever go broke just because he got sick.

The two sentences above were posted recently on the Facebook page of someone I know (who shall remain nameless.) I had my ideas about them at the time, but what really brought it to a head in my mind was when president Obama made similar sentiments in his speech on health care to the joint houses of Congress on the 11th of this month.

These sorts of statements have become common these days, ostensibly a testament to the evolved sensibilities of our time, we being so much more complex, nuanced, and perceptive than those who came before us. But to my mind it's just an example of mushy, half-baked thinking; the kind of thing that at first sounds caring and profound, but at the slightest application of analysis and inquiry, falls apart like damp tissue.

Let's take the second sentence first: No one should ever go broke just because he got sick. My first response is, "why not?" People go broke for lots of reasons that all share the same characteristic: their bills exceed their income. When it's due to poor decisions--profligate spending--we tend to think the fellow got what he deserved. But what about the poor sap (let's call him Dave) who looses his job because the owner of the company he worked for was a boob, mismanaged the company, and it went under? Or, better yet, the company fails, not due to mismanagement, but obsolescence: nobody wants buggy whips anymore? Did Dave get what he deserved? And if he didn't deserve it, does that mean that he "shouldn't" go broke? So if he went broke undeservedly, through no fault of his own, what is the government's responsibility to him? If we apply the same set of reasoning as many are to the question of health care, the answer would be the government should pay Dave's bills and keep him from going broke to be fair (or, in the progressive vernacular, in the interest of "social justice.")

But wait a minute: the money the government would use to pay Dave's bills has to come from somewhere. And government--any government--only has two ways to get money: it confiscates it from its citizens, or prints it (which just deflates the value of all money.) Borrowing doesn't count; that's just another, more pernicious form of confiscating wealth since it eventually has to be paid back, with interest. So how is it fair that the government takes money from you and gives it to Dave?

The first sentence--No one should ever die for lack of health care,-- is even more problematic. If by this one is implying, (as many advocates of government-run health care do,) that people in the United States are dying because they don't have access to health care...well, this simply isn't true. By American law no hospital, public or private, can turn anyone away or refuse treatment due to lack of insurance or inability to pay. As far as the present debate is concerned this sentence is a pure red herring. What's in question is health insurance, not health care. If, however, we take the sentence at face value, it's not difficult to dream up a set of circumstances that render it fantasy. Think of the following scenarios: hunting, logging, or doing geological survey in the deep wilderness, commercial fishing days out to sea, mountain climbing, archeological digging in remote areas. That was just off the top of my head, but with a little thought one could come up with many other activities in which the only way to ensure that "no one should ever die from lack of health care," would be to ban completely those activities simply because their nature removes the person from the proximity to the access of health care.

At the crux of this whole matter is the word used in both statements: the word "should." Because behind that usage of the word is the implication that this is a "right." This is even being stated explicitly by "progressive" voices in this debate. But from the beginning of this country to this present day, rights, as expressed in our founding documents are all "negative" rights, that is they are proscriptive of what the government is allowed to do. "Congress shall make no law..., the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed...nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..."

But a move is being made in the debate over government-run health care to open the door to a completely different concept of "positive" rights, an idea espoused by the left for some time. So there is talk of food being a right, water being a right, a job being a right--and of course, health care being a right. President Obama, for instance, back in 2001 when he was still an Illinois state senator, said in a Chicago public radio interview that the civil rights movement was victorious in some regards, but failed to create a "redistributive change" in its appeals to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and went on to suggest that the Legislature is the place for such change to occur. (You can hear the audio of the interview here.) One of my favorite writers, Theodore Dalrymple, has made the argument against this lunacy in an article which you can read in its entirety here, but the essentials of the argument are this: "If there is a right to health care, someone has the duty to provide it. Inevitably, that “someone” is the government. Concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion."

We already have many government-supplied safety nets and assistance programs, but let's be clear: we have always done these things--for better or worse, (and I would argue that many are for the worse)--because our legislators were persuaded that they were "good" things to do, never because it was a "right" of the citizen that government was obligated to provide. The founders of our country were wise to codify our rights as limitations on government's power to infringe the liberty of the citizen. If we ever do open this Pandora's box of "positive" rights, which then become perpetual governmental obligations to provide, we will find that these new "positive" rights will be at war with our traditional "negative" rights.

No comments: