“Healthcare is not a right.” This has been a favored talking point of American conservatives, Libertarians, and advocates of the free market.Roger Stark, of the Washington Times, articulated this concern saying: “If medical treatment is a right, then what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that your neighbors, through the government, are obligated to provide all health care for you? Does it mean that anyone can demand the government to pay for hospitalization, for prescription drugs, and for specialty treatments such as organ transplants? Does it mean that every American has a right to the skill and knowledge of all physicians and providers?”
Leonard Peikoff, of the Ayn Rand Institute, explained it this way: “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.”
Richard M. Salsman, writing in Forbes Magazine, put it this way: “Doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug-makers, and health insurers are no more “servants” of the masses, or even of those in need of health care, than are businessmen, bankers, teachers, journalists, or truck drivers servants of those who need their services. If you want to pay for the services of health care providers, simply do so; if you can’t afford it, try to negotiate a discount, or pay by installments, or seek access to private charity; but you have no “right” to take from health care providers what they’re not willing to supply.”
“…where my nose begins”
The number of op-eds, articles, TV news segments, social media posts and videos, memes, etc. making this point is not small. It is a central ideological talking point of those who believe in the economic theories of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.
Essentially, “rights” are only negative. Rights only exist to protect individuals from state coercion. They do not entitle anyone to anything. Positive “rights” like education, healthcare, and employment are in fact a violation because they involve an imposition on those required to fulfill them.
Your health is your business, not the business of society. The demand that the government protect your health is not legitimate. Henry David Thoreau wrote “the government is best that governs least.” Reverend A.C. Dixon coined the widely misattributed phrase: “your liberty ends just where my nose begins.”
The way adherents of western liberalism view the world, healthcare simply cannot be a right. Society has no obligation to individuals, and individuals have no obligation to society. The state simply exists to protect you from those who would harm you or steal your property.
The State & Coronavirus
On February 26th, US President Donald Trump addressed the public about the danger of the CoronaVirus. He said: “the number one priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people. And that’s the way I viewed it when I made that decision. Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low. We have the greatest experts in the world — really, in the world, right here — people that are called upon by other countries when things like this happen.”
It seems that many of his supporters and detractors did not seem to realize that his words fly in the face of the longstanding mantra of his political allies. Why should the government prioritize the health of the American people? If healthcare is simply a personal matter, and the state has no right to impose on anyone else, how can the government take action to stop the CoronaVirus?
The reality is, however, that an uncontrolled outbreak of the Corona Virus would be a menace to public health. It is universally recognized that governments have an obligation to step in and prevent further outbreaks.
But then the question is raised, what makes CoronaVirus unique? When people in any society are unwell, it has a detrimental effect on society overall. A society with lots of diseased, unhealthy people in it, is problematic, even for those who are not diseased.
There is a reason that public health codes exist. There is a reason that the US appoints a Surgeon General as part of the Executive Branch. There’s a reason that the US government has a Center for Disease Control.
It is universally recognized by the US public that on some level the state has the “right” to protect the collective health of its people. . The question is how much of a “right” to be healthy do US citizens have?
In many countries, the state ensures that citizens are insured. Some countries go as far as operating a national healthcare service, abolishing private hospitals and clinical services.
Bring A Chicken To The Doctor
The United States stands alone, among western countries, in maintaining a mostly private healthcare system. Richard Nixon’s legislation creating Health Maintenance Organizations in 1973 set up a network of private insurers, who pay the medical bills of those who subscribe to their services.
Some free market conservatives and libertarians argue that even Nixon’s 1973 reforms went too far. Sue Lowden, a conservative candidate for Congress in Nevada argued that the insurance companies created by the state were unnecessary, because prior to that Americans were free to barter with their physicians. She said “You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor. They would say I’ll paint your house…. In the old days that’s what people would do to get healthcare with their doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”
Regardless, Medical debt in the United States currently sits $3.3 trillion, roughly 17.9% of the country’s GDP. In the year of 2019, 27 million Americans had no health insurance, meaning that they would have to pay for any healthcare services directly out of their personal funds.
If the government has an obligation to protect the entire US public from the Coronavirus, does it not have an obligation to ensure that the 27 million uninsured are able to acquire the healthcare they need? Does it not have an obligation to eliminate the $3.3 trillion in medical debt which is a huge weight on the economy?
Human Beings Are Collective Creatures
In essence, human beings are collective creatures. From the time of hunter-gatherer tribalism, to the slave empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, and Greece, to the feudal commons, up to into the modern global capitalist economy, human beings have always cooperated with each other.
No one in this day and age can point to any product and say “I made this all by myself.” The global economy, as it currently exists, involves human beings from across the planet, coming together to create products. A single electronic item may be the product of workers in 5 or 6 different countries. Even the most individualistic craftsmen use tools that are produced in assembly lines, and packaged by scores of other human beings.
Margaret Thatcher, an advocate of western individualism and economic liberalism, said “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
However, the reality is the opposite of what Margaret Thatcher proclaimed. All of human history is a history of collectivism.
The CoronaVirus is a problem that not just neighborhoods and regions, not just countries, but the entire global community must address cooperatively. It shows the absolute necessity of breaking with the ideology that says human beings are only atomized individuals with no obligation to society, and with nothing owed to them.
Problems that threaten the entire human race, require the mobilizations of the entire human race to beat them back.
Western liberal individualist ideology, a convenient rhetorical device for the rich and powerful, fails to understand the very nature of human beings.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.