Is There a Right to Health Care?

March 26, 2020 Updated: March 27, 2020


It is the considered, not to say vociferous, opinion of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that health care is, indeed, a human right.

He sees sick people. His heart, commendably, goes out to them. He emerges from this vista with medical care as a human right. He and all those others who “feel the Bern” apply the same “logic” to food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities of modern life.

The poor need these things; they must have them if they are to lead decent lives let alone survive. Therefore, and there seems to be no other justification for this conclusion, they have a right to them.

Oh, wait, there’s one more premise in the “argument”: other leading countries have installed a right to these benefits; therefore, all people have a right to them.

But a right implies at least the possibility of a rights violator. For our friends on the left, the exploiter is necessarily a wealthy person. If billionaires didn’t have so much of the economic pie, there’d be more left over for their poverty-stricken victims.

It cannot be denied that under crony capitalism, there is, indeed, a zero-sum game going on. But under laissez faire capitalism, every commercial interaction, without exception, is necessarily mutually beneficial, at least in the ex ante sense.

Bill Gates, Ray Croc, and Henry Ford amassed great wealth by enriching pretty much everyone else, not by impoverishing them. (These three economic heroes didn’t enrich their respective competitors, but that’s another story; all entrepreneurs, unlike government bureaucrats, take the risk they’ll be supplanted by even more efficient alternative suppliers.)

Consider Robinson Crusoe who is marooned on an island poorly provided for, with but few provisions. Very little food, clothing, and shelter is available, and no health care at all. He has a right to all these things, just like anyone else, according to those who do not understand what a right is. But there’s no one else on the island who can be blamed for his plight. There’s not a single solitary billionaire to be found anywhere within 500 miles of this island. There’s only Crusoe.

So, who is violating his rights? No one. Therefore, his rights are not being violated by the absence of all these economic goods since the very existence of a right implies a rights violator. And here there is none; there can be none.

Suppose Crusoe was previously a well-to-do landowner on the island, and a hurricane swept all of these consumer durables, food, clothing, etc., of his out into the sea. According to the “logic” of this rights doctrine, these bad weather conditions violated his rights. But this is rather problematic, to say the least.

Does this mean there’s no such thing as a right? Not at all. There is, indeed, such a thing as a negative right. We all have a right not to be murdered. If we are dispatched unjustly, there was a rights violator, the murderer. Similarly, we all have a right not to be raped, kidnapped, stolen from, assaulted, battered, threatened, etc. These are all negative rights, and are totally legitimate. Others are obligated not to perpetrate these crimes upon us. They must refrain from doing so.

It is only so-called positive rights, to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc., that are invalid, since we simply have no right to the hard-earned possessions of other people, which alone can provide them for us; and, without stealing from such other people, these things cannot be provided to us.

Bernie et al. incoherently claim we have a right to pretty much anything anyone desires. Well, then, we might as well have a right to friendship, to true love, to human organs for transplant, to other people’s time, to rubber bands and paper clips.

Rights are as timeless as they are irrelevant to geography (Crusoe’s Island). The cave man had as much right not to be kidnapped or murdered as does modern man, as will the spaceman of the future. But to say that all three have a right to present-day medicine in a philosophical howler.

The spaceman from the future will presumably be able to enjoy far more sophisticated medical care than is now available to us. Does this mean our rights are presently being violated, even when we are served at present by the best doctors in the most up-to-date hospitals?

Consider the poor cave man. Not only can he not avail himself of better future care, even our present level was not available to him eons ago when he was alive. His rights were doubly violated at that time? This is the conclusion to which we are led by the doctrine of positive rights, but it is fallacious.

“Ought” implies “can.” It would be impossible to provide the cave man with modern medicine, or us with health care from the future. For that reason alone, neither of us can have a right to any such thing.

What would it take to provide everyone with all their negative rights? It would be sufficient if all criminals ceased from their acts of murder and rape. If all such predators had a change of conscience, in one fell swoop all negative rights violations would cease. But, no such possibility exists for positive rights. They require the possessions, not just a change of heart, of other people.

When a doctor goes on vacation, is he violating our right to medical care? When a farmer retires, does he violate our right to food? This is the sort of nonsense that emanates from the positive rights doctrine.

Bernie has a right to utter these philosophically invalid fallacies. Free speech is a negative right, not a so-called positive one. No one has a right to shut him up, provided he speaks on his own property, or with the permission of the owners of the premises from which he speaks.

But that doesn’t mean his claim is anything other than nonsense on stilts.

Walter Block is the chair in economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.