G. K. Chesterton once said, “What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over?” It is the sign of a healthy society when citizens care enough about truth and about each other to quarrel over the exact meaning of words. A lack of quarreling, on the other hand, may signal that critical thinking has stopped. It’s a bit like wallpaper. A person is never as serious about wallpaper as when she is in the store picking it out, but few people ever pause to think seriously about wallpaper once it is hung. Many words are more serious than wallpaper. When these weighty concepts are turned into empty clichés, we are all worse for it. A cliché is a means of ending any discussion before it even begins. You can’t quarrel with a cliché. Imagine arguing with a football coach who, after a difficult loss, says, “We just have to take this season one game at a time.” Well, obviously. In this case, the cliché has been deployed expertly to end any further, uncomfortable discussion.
Which brings us to the 2020 Presidential election. Few people are better at emptying words of their meaning than professional politicians. Health care has been a critical issue in national politics for some time especially since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. In 2020, the ACA will not be up for debate as much as a far more ambitious plan for nationalized health care. Details are in short supply, but unreserved support for some sort of single-payer system is now a litmus test for the legitimacy of any Democratic nomination. Obviously, nationalized health care with spark a major debate, but I’ve noticed that the rhetoric of human rights has been deployed in an effort to win the debate before it even starts.
“Here’s what I believe: health care is a right, not a privilege” is what Kamala Harris tweeted.
Cory Booker shared that “health care should be an American right—not a mark of economic status out of reach to many just because they don’t make enough money.”
Elizabeth Warren put it this way: “This is what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans. Democrats believe health care is a basic human right. And we fight for basic human rights.”
Kristen Gillibrand also said, “health care should be a right, not a privilege.”
Bernie Sanders added, “Guaranteeing health care as a right is important to the American people not just from a moral and financial perspective; it also happens to be what the majority of the American people want.”
He’s not necessarily wrong. According to Pew Reseach, 60 percent of Americans now believe it is the government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health coverage. According to Politico, 68 percent of Millennials support a national health plan.
The 2020 Democrats aren’t saying anything that is new. Hillary Clinton talked about health care as a human right in 2016, and before her, Barack Obama used similar language in defending the ACA. What is new is the virtual unanimity of the voices. It is settled truth that health care is a human right.
But is it? Are we even allowed to ask that question?
There are two kinds of rights. Negative rights describe a right that is protected. Free speech, religion, and private property are negative rights. Positive rights describe a right that is owed. To say that we have a negative right to health care would mean that the government must not interfere with its citizens’ pursuit of health care. Some of the discussion in regards to support for abortion sounds like negative rights. A positive right to health care would mean that citizens (through the mechanism of the federal government) are obligated to provide health care to every other citizen. It is almost certainly in this sense that candidates talk about the right to health care.
Understanding health care in this way might be a good way to stifle debate, but it is also a terrible idea. First of all, “health care” is difficult to define with any precision. What kind of health care is a government obligated to provide for its citizens? What metrics do we use to define the parameters of good or acceptable health care? If it is a positive right, it seems we should be able to arrive at a common definition. Secondly, if health care is a positive right, then it must be offered without cost or without reserve otherwise rights are being denied. Economics cannot factor in to whether or not I receive what I am owed as a right. However, we know that restrictions are inevitable because the cost must be paid by someone. This leads to the third noteworthy problem for all positive rights. Positive rights imply a duty from others. In other words, positive rights always require an imposition on the rights of others. Turning health care into a positive right erodes compassion into mere compulsion.
Natural rights shouldn’t be the type of things that come into and go out of existence. How is it that this generation has discovered a right that apparently previous generations missed? We know that some rights are neglected and then discovered through pain and progress only to be forgotten again. The history of civil rights in this nation bears that out, but human rights don’t just emerge suddenly, ex nihilo, just in time for a Presidential election.
Turning rights into clichés has created an environment conducive to the creation of all sorts of new rights. According to a Reuters poll, 60 percent of the population believes that the government should provide free college tuition. Is free college education also a right? At least one writer at the Huffington Post thinks so. What about Internet access? According to Vox, extremely high-speed Internet is “almost a right.” It seems that the language of human rights has been coopted by the imperative of human desires. If I want it, it must be a right. In an environment where so many are turning to the government for positive rights, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when we begin to look for the government to reign in certain negative rights. 40 percent of Millennials, according to Pew Research, believe that the government should limit the free speech of those who make offensive statements.
Nationalized health care may or may not be a good idea. I personally have serious doubts. I generally dubious about handing over my health care to a chronically inept bureaucracy that can’t even figure out how to fix crumbling bridges and roads. But I could be wrong. Absent any details – especially in regards to how this new system will be paid for – it’s impossible to know for certain. Human compassion and common citizenship ought to move us to work towards finding a system where quality health care is widely available and affordable especially to those most at risk. At the very least, the issue needs to be rigorously debated, but debate is impossible when the issue has been reduced to empty clichés. Cliches and campaign slogans open the door to ad hominem attacks (“Republicans don’t believe good health care is your right!”) and close the door to serious quarreling that might lead to a solution. Ironically, insisting that health care is a human right may actually lead to bad policy that doesn’t actually make things substantially better. Unfortunately, a motto that says “reforming health care is a good idea that needs to be debated” won’t look very good on a bumper sticker.