June 25, 2015

“Privilege for a few” vs. “A right for all”

By In Articles, Economics

Today, the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that “the Affordable Care Act authorized federal tax credits for eligible Americans living not only in states with their own exchanges but also in the 34 states with federal exchanges” (See Joe Carter’s piece for more on the details).  In a response to the ruling, President Obama stated that “[w]e finally declared that in America, health care is not a privilege for a few, but a right for all.”

My goal here is to break down this sentence and correct it based on economic reality, rather than political catch phrases.

Let’s first clarify the “we” there above.  No one should think that “we” means “the people.”  The people declared nothing. Sure, a certain percentage, depending on what poll you are looking at, of citizens favor the Obamacare system (and socialism in general).  But not only does a certain percentage of a population not constitute the entire “we,” it must also be noted that the decision was made by a handful of bureaucrats, politicians, well-connected lobbyists throughout the insurance industry, and judges (whose goal is to rubber stamp the Federal Government’s efforts).  So when we see Obama’s words, we should understand that “they” made a declaration.  Of course, just because a ruler makes a declaration does not at all mean that said declaration is founded in economic or moral reality.

Obama’s sentence pits two false options against each other, as if, in rejecting that health care is a right for all, its critics believe that health care should only be a privilege for the few.  But the libertarian agrees with neither position.

“A right for all”

What is a right?  In recent years, with the rising influence of libertarian phraseology, which includes the idea of “rights,” there has been somewhat of a tiny backlash among certain conservative Christians online who have responded to all of this talk of “rights” by saying that the Bible never says we “have rights.”  Moreover, they point out that man before his creator has no rights; that is, no man can look to God and say “you owe me, I have a right to this.” Thus, they conclude, there are no rights and they are a secular creation. This misunderstands the nature of rights.

The first thing to point out when we speak of rights is that we are speaking of the relationship between man and man. Thus we categorically dismiss the criticism of rights summarized by the idea that man cannot demand that God respect man’s rights.

The second point is that rights are grounded in ethics.  When we speak of rights, we are saying that, by the nature of “right,” it is ethically wrong to breach these rights.  Whatever the rights may be, if broken, there has been an ethical violation.  Thus, when Obama says that health care is a right for all, what he is saying is that before these alleged “rights” were legally enforced by the Federal Government, someone (perhaps “society” since in Progressive-land “society” is actually an responsible agent) was in breach of those rights.  Of course, since we libertarians reject this collectivist paradigm, we don’t hold “society” responsible.  The point, however, is that rights entail a certain ethical stance.

Since no one has a “right” to the property of another, for such a position would allow for theft (as “exercising one’s right” would entail taking– or hiring the government to take– what someone else currently considers his property), we must conclude that rights are not “positive.”  In other words, a right isn’t defined by what you can demand from others (whether health care or otherwise).  Rights are negative, which means that our legal rights are defined by what other individuals are not allowed to do to us.  If no one is allowed to murder another person –whether born or unborn– then we can articulate this by saying we have a right to life.  If no one –whether in government or not– is allowed to steal from another person, then we can articulate this by saying that we have a right to our property. Now, since the ethical command that no one steal or murder is given by God Himself, it follows that men have God-given rights that can be legally enforced by the full extent of the law.

Now, since health care is a service that is to be provided on the market, supplied by the “health care entrepreneurs” who own these services, no one else has a “right” to declare that these service providers must provide health care services for other people.  The individuals running the health care company, in actuality, have the right to their property and can use this property in the manner that they choose. Because it is unethical for people to use force to make the property-owning health care providers service others, the service providers have the right to be free from such aggression.  When Obama states that health care is a right for all, he is saying that people have a right to force other people to provide their services.  But this is beyond morally suspect. This is the institutionalization of ethical disregard.

Thus, Obama’s statement represents the very opposite of the reality here.  For his convenience, I have produced the following table to summarize these difficult moral concepts:

Right Not a Right
Keeping what you own Stealing from others

No one has a right to the goods and services of another individual for the same reason that no one has a “right” to someone else’s car, cell phone, or water bottle: there is no such thing as a positive right.  Health care then is not a right, it is a market service that can be supplied and demanded in the economy by means of an agreeable exchange.

“A privilege for a few”

The other side of Obama’s false paradigm is the idea that “health care is a privilege for a few,” presumably the super wealthy; as the leftist narrative would have it.  But this makes no sense either because it assumes that we anti-Obamacare folks (more specifically, and to distance ourselves from the largely pro-government intervention GOP, anti-economic interventionists) wouldn’t be pleased if health care was provided to all who wanted it.  We most certainly would love it if all who demanded it could access it (of course, not everybody does want it, a fact totally dismissed by the mandatory insurance advocates). But the question is, can this goal be better attained by the means of the free market or by government intervention?

When electricity and indoor plumbing and air conditioners and televisions (and on and on) were first invented and first began to be installed in private homes, who but the wealthiest could afford to buy them?  Few felt the need to complain that these innovations “should not be restricted to the privileged few!”  And yet now, the majority of Americans have all these things! What happened?  Well, increased economic productivity happened. Capitalists invested their capital back into the production process and began to make more of these things, driving down their cost and in the meantime increasing the wealth of everybody else.  This is literally the process by which people at large step out of poverty.  For thousands of years people lived in poverty until the rise of capitalism and the idea that investing in productive (determined by the desires of property-owning consumers not governments as we hear today by the alleged need for more government-driven “investment) efforts would make everybody better off.

Notwithstanding the fact that health care’s current absurd price levels comes from government through its regulations, centralization, bureaucratization, and supply/demand discoordination through massive programs like Medicare, health care access can only be expanded if the market demands it and is willing, through the means of the individual’s “voting with his dollar” to send more resources and investment into those industries.  Solving the problem of “only a few having access to it” (especially in our day and age when the government is the chief recipient of the blame) cannot be found in government taking over the industry, but in precisely the reverse; namely, in government completely stepping out of the way and letting profit-seeking entrepreneurs discover new ways to deliver these services to those who want it. In doing this, the entrepreneurs will, if they estimate consumer demand correctly, derive a profit from the whole process, thereby inviting other profit-seeking entrepreneurs to compete in the market by allocating more resources and investment in this area.  In the same way that computers and electricity saw their prices come down, inviting even more consumers of these goods, so health care would operate the same way in the free market.

As was observed by Ludwig von Mises:169870d4f144048fd54d437a13e91f12

Capitalism is essentially a system of mass production for the satisfaction of the needs of the masses. It pours a horn of plenty upon the common man. It has raised the average standard of living to a height never dreamed of in earlier ages. It has made accessible to millions of people enjoyments which a few generations ago were only within the reach of a small elite.

In other words, the market process is the means by which “privilege for the few” is overcome and conquered.  It is the means by which the multitudes can increase in their standard of living, without having to participate in the institutionalization of covetous behavior summarized with the phrase “a right for all.”

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Brian K. Jacobson

    Society is responsible to provide me healthcare is a fancy way of saying my healthcare is everyone’s responsibility but my own.