Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Letters From an Ohio Farmer

Certain Unalienable Rights

February 14, 2012

To My Fellow Citizens:

Do we have a right to health care?

In the debate over President Obama’s health care law, we’ve heard a lot about costs and constitutionality, but we haven’t heard enough about this more fundamental question, which underlies the whole health care debate.

Those in favor of the law join President Obama in insisting that health care “should be a right for every American” and that the federal government must secure that right for all. Those on the other side have usually avoided the larger question in favor of economic and legal arguments: “It will cost too much!”; “It will hurt medical care!”; “It is beyond the legal power of Congress!” These are powerful arguments and certainly need to be made, but they concede too much of the moral high ground.

To recapture that ground, we need to be clear about what we mean by a “right to health care.” Americans certainly talk a lot about rights, which makes sense given that our Declaration of Independence proclaims that it is to secure their rights that “Governments are instituted among men.” But are the advocates of the “right” to health care understanding rights as our Founders did? When the American revolutionaries talked about the rights governments are established to secure, they meant “natural rights,” as we can see in the preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 written by John Adams:

The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights, and the blessings of life….

When President Obama talks about the “right” to health care, it is clear that he is talking about privileges or entitlements rather than natural rights. A privilege is a supposed good thing that is given and taken back at the will of the person who gives it. As every teenager has heard, “driving is a privilege.” Parents can take away the keys to the car and a state government can change the age at which young people can drive. One can say this teenager or that teenager, or all teenagers, “should”or “should not” be granted the privilege of driving, as President Obama thinks all Americans “should be” granted health care.

Natural rights are not like that. All human beings are born with them—endowed with them by our Creator, as the Declaration of Independence says—not given them by any government.  It doesn’t make sense to say all Americans “should” have or “should not” have the right to life, for example: we “do” have it, as do all other human beings, simply by virtue of being human beings. Government exists to protect our natural rights, not to grant them. And certain of these rights, like the right to life, no one on earth can give or take away: they are “unalienable.”

Just as natural rights are not privileges, they also should not be confused with entitlements. An entitlement is something that a person deserves to have given to him by someone else (and clearly this is much more what President Obama and his allies in the health care debate mean when they call health care a “right”). Natural rights are not entitlements. No human being or government can give them to us; we are born with them.

To think of health care as an entitlement, as President Obama does, is to think that all Americans somehow deserve to have health care given to us. But is that not absurd, and does it not tread heavily on our real rights? Health care is provided by people who choose to become doctors, nurses, therapists, and aides. What “right” do we have to force them to give us their services—anymore than they have a right to force us to give them our labor, whatever our job is? After all, if no one chooses to become a doctor, how could we demand to have a doctor’s services given to us? Could we rightly force an unwilling person to become a doctor just so we could make her give us medical services? Of course not.

If Americans concede that health care is a “right,” as understood by the advocates of ObamaCare, we will have greatly jeopardized the rights for which we instituted government in the first place. We will have greatly diminished the principled moral ground on which to resist government’s growing power, not just over how we seek and provide health care, but over our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness altogether.  Getting clear on what we mean by “rights” is vital not only to knowing how to truly reform health care but to preserving limited, constitutional government.

Ohio Farmer