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Home > The Basic Issues > Health Care Is Not a Right, Page 1
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Health Care Is Not a Right

By Leonard Peikoff, Ph.D.

[AFCM also offers video of this lecture, or download a PDF suitable for printing (requires Adobe® Reader).]

Delivered at a Town Hall meeting on the Clinton Health Plan, Red Lion Hotel, Costa Mesa, California, December 11, 1993.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen:
 
Most people who oppose socialized medicine do so on the grounds that it is moral and well-intentioned, but impractical; i.e., it is a noble idea—which just somehow does not work. I do not agree that socialized medicine is moral and well-intentioned, but impractical. Of course, it is impractical—it does not work—but I hold that it is impractical because it is immoral. This is not a case of noble in theory but a failure in practice; it is a case of vicious in theory and therefore a disaster in practice. So I'm going to leave it to other speakers to concentrate on the practical flaws in the Clinton health plan. I want to focus on the moral issue at stake. So long as people believe that socialized medicine is a noble plan, there is no way to fight it. You cannot stop a noble plan—not if it really is noble. The only way you can defeat it is to unmask it—to show that it is the very opposite of noble. Then at least you have a fighting chance.

What is morality in this context? The American concept of it is officially stated in the Declaration of Independence. It upholds man's unalienable, individual rights. The term "rights," note, is a moral (not just a political) term; it tells us that a certain course of behavior is right, sanctioned, proper, a prerogative to be respected by others, not interfered with—and that anyone who violates a man's rights is: wrong, morally wrong, unsanctioned, evil.

Now our only rights, the American viewpoint continues, are the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. That's all. According to the Founding Fathers, we are not born with a right to a trip to Disneyland, or a meal at Mcdonald's, or a kidney dialysis (nor with the 18th-century equivalent of these things). We have certain specific rights—and only these.

Why only these? Observe that all legitimate rights have one thing in common: they are rights to action, not to rewards from other people. The American rights impose no obligations on other people, merely the negative obligation to leave you alone. The system guarantees you the chance to work for what you want—not to be given it without effort by somebody else.

The right to life, e.g., does not mean that your neighbors have to feed and clothe you; it means you have the right to earn your food and clothes yourself, if necessary by a hard struggle, and that no one can forcibly stop your struggle for these things or steal them from you if and when you have achieved them. In other words: you have the right to act, and to keep the results of your actions, the products you make, to keep them or to trade them with others, if you wish. But you have no right to the actions or products of others, except on terms to which they voluntarily agree.

To take one more example: the right to the pursuit of happiness is precisely that: the right to the pursuit—to a certain type of action on your part and its result—not to any guarantee that other people will make you happy or even try to do so. Otherwise, there would be no liberty in the country: if your mere desire for something, anything, imposes a duty on other people to satisfy you, then they have no choice in their lives, no say in what they do, they have no liberty, they cannot pursue their happiness. Your "right" to happiness at their expense means that they become rightless serfs, i.e., your slaves. Your right to anything at others' expense means that they become rightless.

That is why the U.S. system defines rights as it does, strictly as the rights to action. This was the approach that made the U.S. the first truly free country in all world history—and, soon afterwards, as a result, the greatest country in history, the richest and the most powerful. It became the most powerful because its view of rights made it the most moral. It was the country of individualism and personal independence.

Today, however, we are seeing the rise of principled immorality in this country. We are seeing a total abandonment by the intellectuals and the politicians of the moral principles on which the U.S. was founded. We are seeing the complete destruction of the concept of rights. The original American idea has been virtually wiped out, ignored as if it had never existed. The rule now is for politicians to ignore and violate men's actual rights, while arguing about a whole list of rights never dreamed of in this country's founding documents—rights which require no earning, no effort, no action at all on the part of the recipient.

You are entitled to something, the politicians say, simply because it exists and you want or need it—period. You are entitled to be given it by the government. Where does the government get it from? What does the government have to do to private citizens—to their individual rights—to their real rights—in order to carry out the promise of showering free services on the people?

The answers are obvious. The newfangled rights wipe out real rights—and turn the people who actually create the goods and services involved into servants of the state. The Russians tried this exact system for many decades. Unfortunately, we have not learned from their experience. Yet the meaning of socialism (this is the right name for Clinton's medical plan) is clearly evident in any field at all—you don't need to think of health care as a special case; it is just as apparent if the government were to proclaim a universal right to food, or to a vacation, or to a haircut. I mean: a right in the new sense: not that you are free to earn these things by your own effort and trade, but that you have a moral claim to be given these things free of charge, with no action on your part, simply as handouts from a benevolent government.

How would these alleged new rights be fulfilled? Take the simplest case: you are born with a moral right to hair care, let us say, provided by a loving government free of charge to all who want or need it. What would happen under such a moral theory?
 
Haircuts are free, like the air we breathe, so some people show up every day for an expensive new styling, the government pays out more and more, barbers revel in their huge new incomes, and the profession starts to grow ravenously, bald men start to come in droves for free hair implantations, a school of fancy, specialized eyebrow pluckers develops—it's all free, the government pays. The dishonest barbers are having a field day, of course—but so are the honest ones; they are working and spending like mad, trying to give every customer his heart's desire, which is a millionaire's worth of special hair care and services—the government starts to scream, the budget is out of control. Suddenly directives erupt: we must limit the number of barbers, we must limit the time spent on haircuts, we must limit the permissible type of hair styles; bureaucrats begin to split hairs about how many hairs a barber should be allowed to split. A new computerized office of records filled with inspectors and red tape shoots up; some barbers, it seems, are still getting too rich, they must be getting more than their fair share of the national hair, so barbers have to start applying for Certificates of Need in order to buy razors, while peer review boards are established to assess every stylist's work, both the dishonest and the overly honest alike, to make sure that no one is too bad or too good or too busy or too unbusy. Etc. In the end, there are lines of wretched customers waiting for their chance to be routinely scalped by bored, hog-tied haircutters some of whom remember dreamily the old days when somehow everything was so much better.

Do you think the situation would be improved by having hair-care cooperatives organized by the government?—having them engage in managed competition, managed by the government, in order to buy haircut insurance from companies controlled by the government?

If this is what would happen under government-managed hair care, what else can possibly happen—it is already starting to happen—under the idea of health care as a right? Health care in the modern world is a complex, scientific, technological service. How can anybody be born with a right to such a thing?

Under the American system you have a right to health care if you can pay for it, i.e., if you can earn it by your own action and effort. But nobody has the right to the services of any professional individual or group simply because he wants them and desperately needs them. The very fact that he needs these services so desperately is the proof that he had better respect the freedom, the integrity, and the rights of the people who provide them.

You have a right to work, not to rob others of the fruits of their work, not to turn others into sacrificial, rightless animals laboring to fulfill your needs.

Some of you may ask here: But can people afford health care on their own? Even leaving aside the present government-inflated medical prices, the answer is: Certainly people can afford it. Where do you think the money is coming from right now to pay for it all—where does the government get its fabled unlimited money? Government is not a productive organization; it has no source of wealth other than confiscation of the citizens' wealth, through taxation, deficit financing or the like.

Continued on Page 2

 

Copyright © 1993 Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved.
For reprint permission, contact AFCM.

 


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