Do People Have a Right to Healthcare?


When I was a senior in high school, I found myself thinking a lot about Obamacare and the concept of universal health insurance. I remember one girl who cut me off when explaining my thinking on the topic by exclaiming, “But Alex, don’t you think that health care is a right?”

At least in that regard, Northwestern is pretty similar to my high school. Students here tend to assume that health care is a right, and there’s no second-guessing that notion.

The idea that a person has a right to healthcare seems obvious and easily defensible. After all, is there anything more important than life itself? If people have the right to speak freely and own a personal firearm, it seems that we should have a right to much more integral components of existence.

It might be prudent, however, to define what, exactly, healthcare means.

This is trickier than it seems. Is it healthcare when a person goes running, or when they shower? Those activities both serve to sustain an individual; they make people healthier, and thus, in a sense, are forms of preventative care.

But it’s obvious that people aren’t referencing regular bathing when they say that they have good healthcare. They, obviously, mean accessing hospitals and doctors. Healthcare is service when people are debating the merits of universal healthcare.

This means, primarily, that the entire premise of “healthcare” as a right is ill conceived. Why? Because for something to be a right, you have to be able to procure it whenever you feel you need it (your claim can never be denied). But since we have constricted “healthcare” to mean a service provided almost exclusively by doctors, this would mean that every person has a claim on a doctor’s time and resources—they must be seen and treated.

So then, what is really meant when it is claimed that people have a “right to healthcare” is that people have a “right to force a certain class of people with a certain level of education to provide them with expensive services”. That’s coercion. If we view healthcare in this light, we are forcing individuals who have chosen to take a particular career path to be serfs to everyone else. In no other industry is that true; if you become a barber or a government bureaucrat, people do not have a “right” to your time or services. Such a claim would be nonsense.

It’s hard to argue this point. Some see no problem in such governmental force, while others shrug it off as the lesser of two evils. But can a violation of individual liberties ever be something to shrug off? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think we would be wise to keep Edmund Burke’s sage words in the back of our minds when debating such issues: “The true danger is when Liberty is nibbled away, for expedients.”

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