For Healthcare, Rights Are Right

In a September 1 column (“For Healthcare, Right is Wrong”) in The Tech, Joe Maurer argues that healthcare, prescription drugs, and emergency room treatment are not constitutionally-protected and inalienable rights, but goods and services to be earned through the acquisition of wealth. Maurer argues that healthcare is akin to property — an essential to life that is universally accessible in that those with sufficient wealth can always have it, but not universally provided for. Maurer also makes an economic argument — nonessential services like education and public safety economically benefit the country as a whole and thus are provided for in part or wholly by the government. “The purpose of any government subsidy or support,” writes Maurer, “is to encourage more of a desirable thing. No one with a medical ailment needs encouragement from a government to remedy their problem.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Maurer’s assertion that debating the specifics of Obama’s healthcare plan is ultimately futile if the question of whether healthcare is a right or a service to be earned is not answered first. So to clear that up: healthcare is an inalienable right that must be guaranteed for every American regardless of their means.

Maurer repeatedly invokes the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” (the “inalienable rights”) clause of the Declaration of Independence in his argument. No clause seems to be better support the case for universally guaranteed healthcare. As Maurer writes, “Life” means that “existence on Earth is mine, and that no one may take it from me without my consent.” Indeed, this is why our government universally provides for public safety — even the poorest people in our country are guaranteed protection by taxpayer-supported police officers from homicide or assault. Are bacteria, viruses, cancer or accidental injury so different? Don’t they also threaten our right to life on a regular basis?

Even those without the means to pay for healthcare do receive emergency treatment in this country. But they are often shackled by enormous debt following emergency treatment, and since they are never guaranteed long-term healthcare if their condition is chronic, they are likely to require emergency care again (Are these citizens free to exercise their rights and pursue happiness?). This results in mounting debt and impacts the rest of society in profound ways.

First, there’s the economic opportunity loss from those who cannot afford healthcare or insurance. Individuals who could be productive economic units are instead incapacitated by illness through no fault of their own. Second, the rest of society has to compensate for the debt an individual incurs if they cannot pay for emergency treatment, again through no fault of their own.

There are two solutions. One is to let individuals without the means die, so that private hospitals will not have any debt to collect (meaning lower costs for everybody else). The other option is to fund public, universally guaranteed healthcare for everyone, regardless of means, through increased taxes on the richest members of society. The latter choice is the right one for two reasons — the government has an obligation to guarantee “life,” and there will be no economic opportunity loss if we guarantee healthcare. There’s nothing less economically productive than a potential worker incapacitated by illness and not receiving treatment for it. A single individual’s illness is undoubtedly a negative externality for society as a whole.

But what about doctors, medical researchers, and pharmaceutical companies? Do they stand to lose a market incentive for their labor if healthcare is universally guaranteed, as Maurer suggests? Obviously, doctors and researchers would still have to be paid for their services, just like police officers are. And again, the solution is the same — higher taxes on those who can afford it to subsidize private hospitals with an increased patient load, or to establish entirely taxpayer-owned hospitals. Is this fair to those in higher income brackets, and do doctors or hospitals still stand to lose some potential revenue? Is it legitimate for me, a student (who pays very little in taxes), to argue for this kind of change?

Fortunately, this is not a solely economic argument. This country was founded on moral principles as well as political and economic ones. Invoking the Declaration of Independence is useful for ascertaining the philosophical underpinnings of our country, but that document holds no real force of law. However, the Constitution itself also suggests healthcare should be universally available and accessible, especially when interpreted via the Declaration.

From the Preamble, our government is obligated to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” among other things. Liberty, as mentioned in the Declaration and defined by Maurer as “that I am free to live my life unbridled, so long as I do not bridle others,” is not secured for those who have fallen ill. And simply put, it is the obligation of the government and American society to restore that liberty. Just as the government would work to restore our rights if we came under attack by a foreign nation, it must do the same to protect us from threats from the microscopic world, or accidental injury. A sick American is certainly not one who is free to exercise his or her rights as enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Healthcare is a need, and thus it is a right. If, as the Constitution says, our government must secure liberty, then first it must secure life so that Americans may exercise their rights. And if, as Maurer argues, providing a “need” to the poor “robs” the productive of their right to property, do we as a country value property over life? And what about the potential productivity of sick Americans? They are truly the ones being unfairly robbed of property.

Jefferson’s modification of George Mason’s draft Declaration says it best — what was “life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” became “life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” To value property over life, and to deny Americans the healthcare that is their right is the greatest injustice of all.