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Is Healthcare a Right? May 15, 2017

Posted by geoff in News.

This is an old post (November 2006) I wrote at Uncommon Misconceptions. I thought it was topical given the kerfuffle over Miss USA 2017’s statement that she didn’t believe healthcare was a right:

[Horribly long, what with all the historical stuff – I apologize]

Liberals and conservatives often have a difficult time communicating because they have different definitions for words. A “good economy,” for example, means one thing to conservatives (a healthy economy) and another to liberals (a just economy). This is a leading contributor to the lamentable rarity of rational debate on the issues.

The definition of a human “right” is another area where a huge gulf underlays liberal/conservative discussions, but is rarely addressed directly. So what is a “right?”

First, there are many types of “rights.” The most relevant to this discussion are “natural rights,” human rights,” and “civil rights.” Here are definitions for each of these types of rights (from The American Heritage Dictionary).

  • Natural Rights: Natural rights, according to American tradition, are those rights granted to human-kind by their Creator, or as Jefferson put it in the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE—essentially borrowing from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690)—the rights accorded by “Nature and Nature’s God.” In the Declaration, these are described as “unalienable” rights, and include the recognition that “all men are created equal” and that all have rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
  • Human Rights: The basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law.
  • Civil Rights: The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by subsequent acts of Congress, including civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination.

Human and natural rights are similar, and encompass what most of us mean when we talk about “rights,” with human rights being a more secular version of natural rights. You have the right to do and say as you please, and to be treated like any other person, as long as you don’t violate laws created to protect other people’s rights. Note that these rights only involve the removal of barriers to living your life.

Enter FDR. In 1941 he gave his famous “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he outlined his conception of human rights.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

Later in the speech he equates “freedoms” and “rights,” and so is defining, to conservative eyes at least, a novel conception of human rights. Note the 3rd freedom, which seeks to eliminate “want” from the human condition. The original definition was “freedom to want,” but in Roosevelt’s construction, an onus is placed on society to eliminate poverty, hunger, disease, and any other sad state that afflicts humanity. [What Roosevelt didn’t say was that this freedom could not be achieved without infringing on the freedoms of others – namely those who would be forced to pay for it.]

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948 the UN caught the fever, and issued the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” with Eleanor Roosevelt heading up the United States’ contribution. Flinging themselves down FDR’s slippery slope, they put together 30 Articles describing Human Rights that should be protected. The document starts off well, with the first 23 Articles basically conforming to the traditional understanding of Human Rights. But then things get ugly:

Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

OK, that’s not too bad, though it starts intruding on the employer/employee relationship.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Where did that come from? Huh? All of a sudden we’ve gone socialist in a single clause (1)!! And that’s the clause where the difference between liberals and conservatives is manifested.

Conservatives believe you have the right to seek food, clothing, housing, and medical care, on an equal basis with anybody else, but you don’t have a right to demand those things or have them provided for you. Liberals believe that until all people have these things, redistribution of wealth is mandated by humanitarianism, because these are fundamental human rights.

The remaining articles get a little worse, stating a right to education (conservatives normally believe that it is a privilege granted to children which provides a net benefit to society), the right to develop one’s personality (?), and the right to “a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” The latter point being kind of creepy for New World Order conspiracists.

Implementation of the Universal Declaration. As written, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was just a statement of principle. Naturally the next step for the UN was to make it law. The Declaration was divided into two parts: the Civil and Political Rights (Articles 1 – 23) and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Articles 24 – 30). These two parts were then codified in two agreements: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These are legally binding agreements which almost every country has signed and ratified.

Six countries have signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the United States is one of these. The President who signed on behalf of the United States was . . . Jimmy Carter!! [Duh] But the Senate has not ratified the treaty. Here’s a brief history of the treaty in the US:

The United States signed the Covenant in 1979 under the Carter Administration but is not fully bound by it until it is ratified. For political reasons, the Carter Administration did not push for the necessary review of the Covenant by the Senate, which must give its “advice and consent” before the United States can ratify a treaty. The Reagan and Bush Administrations took the view that economic, social, and cultural rights were not really rights but merely desirable social goals and therefore should not be the object of binding treaties. The Clinton Administration has not denied the nature of these rights but has not found it politically expedient to engage in a battle with Congress over the Covenant.

Bottom line: As stated in the preceding blockquote, Conservatives in the US do not believe that Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights are really rights. Liberals believe that they are obviously rights, and that Conservatives are just mean and obstructionist.

This is why health care debate goes nowhere – Liberals are honestly trying to meet human rights standards that, by conservative lights, have no philosophical foundation. If Libs really want to promote health care legislation, they need to address the philosophical objections of Conservatives. And if Conservatives want to avoid universal health care, they need to come up with viable alternatives that address the Liberal human rights shortfall.


1. lauraw - May 16, 2017

This is wonderfully done.

2. Mr. Matamoros - May 17, 2017

This is a keeper, geoff. I’m going to bookmark this for reference.

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