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No "Right to Healthcare" - December 2017

posted Dec 29, 2017, 4:43 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review
By James Garry '20

Our current healthcare system is, to put it bluntly, unsustainable. The cost of treatment inflates yearly to exorbitant new levels, and the system as a whole is laden with inefficiencies. Those who lack adequate health insurance rarely receive preventative or proactive care and often times preventable illnesses become costly emergency-room cases. In an effort to address this crisis, the American left has united behind a common rallying cry: “Healthcare is a fundamental human right!”

The aim of such rhetoric is admirable. Confronted with the stomach churning reality of the large number of Americans who die each year because they could not afford decent medical treatment in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, those who make such proclamations are responding to a very real injustice. Nonetheless, this maxim is a caustic one. In claiming that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right they both distort the concept of human rights and imply a perverse set of assumptions about what it means to live in a society.

Fundamental human rights exist in order to preserve the dignity of the individual. Rights such as the right to free speech and the right to practice one’s religion ensure that individuals within a society are free to act according to their conscience and beliefs, so long as they do not impede others from doing so. The establishment of basic rights preserves the dignity of the individual by protecting him from unjust coercion from his fellow citizens and the government itself. Under this schema of human rights, the claim that the right to healthcare should be included quickly breaks down. Medical treatment, or the resources used to procure it, inevitably come from another human being. The assertion that one has a right to healthcare thus implies that one has a right to the property or resources of another human being, and ultimately, that one has a right to coerce another to serve his own ends. At this point, a “right” no longer serves to protect the dignity and integrity of the individual within a society; it involves an overreach into the integrity of another.

At this point the argument in favor of the government providing a basic healthcare safety net to its citizens appears to collapse. And indeed, under the terms of the prevailing mode of moral discourse in our society it does. But that is because the discourse is shaped by an unnatural, pernicious notion: that as a society our obligations to our fellow human beings extend only as far as the bare portion we owe to them as an absolute right. Such a conception of what it means to live in a society is one-dimensional and cold. It ignores the cooperative aspects of human nature that compelled us to sacrifice our natural total freedom in order to enter into a society in the first place. It labors under the delusion that the height of human political good in a society is a sort of cage match- a contest of all against all monitored by an indifferent referee whose only purpose is to cut things short when certain lines are crossed.

When the obligations we have to each other by virtue of our common human nature are cast only in legalistic, bare bones terms -- of force and rights, of what I can and cannot be made to do, of what I owe and am owed -- we lose the freedom required to regard others as human beings deserving of our compassion. We transform them, instead, into entries in an accountant’s ledger, against which we must balance the books. Those who advocate for a government that operates on such terms advocate for an unnatural government, a government that exists not to support a society but a pack of individuals in constant competition. Even our founding fathers recognized this when they allowed the federal government to collect taxes for the “general welfare.”

I object to the argument that healthcare is a basic human right, not because I disagree with the need for government sponsored healthcare, but on two other grounds. Firstly, that it dilutes the precious concept of what exactly a human right is and our reasons for protecting them. Secondly, because it operates under and thus affirms the assumption that our debts to one another extend no further than political rights; that our society can do no better than hostile and reluctant concessions. I believe more of human nature.