Friday, September 18, 2009

Is health care a basic human right?

A response to the Facebook poll: Should health care be considered a basic human right?

If health care is a basic human right, then why are so many people speaking in such nationalistic terms--complaining, for instance, about illegal aliens, as if only Americans are human beings? Citizens of Mexico are humans, too. So are citizens of Nigeria, and China. If health care is a basic human right, then it is a basic right of every human being in the world.

Much of the conflict in the current health care debate comes from confusion about the concept of "rights." Many Americans cling to an old-fashioned definition of "rights" which denies the validity of positive rights like the right to adequate health care. So allow me to take a moment to clarify the difference between positive and negative human rights.

Health care is a positive right, which means it is a right to certain goods and services produced by others. The right to health care creates a corresponding obligation for others to produce and provide those goods and services. In contrast, a negative right, like the right to life, requires only that others refrain from killing you. Thus, negative rights require nothing more than acknowledgment and self-control from others, while positive rights require production and provision of goods and services. Of course this does not mean that positive rights do not exist--only that they require much more effort to "defend."

Another difference between positive and negative rights is that negative rights place a negative obligation on all other humans equally; your right to life requires all other humans to refrain from killing you. But a positive right entails the obligation to provide goods and services; it cannot be required of those who cannot produce and provide those goods and services, but only of the relatively small segment of humanity that has the ability to produce them. The obligations of this particular group (in this case, doctors, nurses, drug companies, etc.) can be somewhat mitigated by taxing everyone who receives income to pay those who must actually do the work. This spreads the obligation more evenly over the human population.

I think it's obvious that the defense of humanity's right to health care requires the establishment of a world organization devoted to assessing the needs of all countries and ensuring that those needs are met, with as much fairness as is humanly possible. This organization must be granted power, first of all, to tax the entire working/investing population of the world (though perhaps individual governments could tax their own citizens and hand it over all at once). Funding would probably be best accomplished by steeply progressive taxes on income and wealth. Secondly, the organization must have the power to deploy doctors, nurses, and medical resources where they are needed most. At first, this system would undoubtedly entail a massive influx of money and personnel from the richer to the poorer countries of the world, but only until such time as health care resources are deemed by the central medical authority to be distributed evenly over the world.

It is to be hoped that American medical personnel would voluntarily and happily embrace their placements in foreign countries for the good of humanity. However, the central medical authority must have the ability to enforce the fair distribution of medical services if necessary. Possibly large fines could be levied on anyone who refuses deployment, and this money could be used to pay others who are willing. Possibly doctors and nurses could be barred from practicing their chosen profession if they refuse to accept their assignments.

We would hope that stronger measures, such as imprisonment, would not be necessary to enforce compliance from doctors and nurses. However, imprisonment has always been required to enforce the payment of taxes, and this is not likely to change. In the United States and other developed nations where the first phase of universal health care will undoubtedly entail higher taxes coupled with a lower level of health care services, strong measures may be required to enforce compliance with the new health care tax for certain segments of the population.

While sensible, progressive thinkers will undoubtedly embrace the plan and pay the new taxes voluntarily, the United States is unfortunately home to a great number of potential domestic terrorists who care for no one but themselves, and regard all socially progressive programs with extreme paranoia. Their propaganda attempts to discredit the very concept of the positive rights essential to a socially advanced society. Sadly, we are likely to experience a vicious backlash against the health care system from this backward group, and additional taxes may be needed to pay for the incarceration of any who refuse to comply with the new laws.


  1. I realize that you're attempting, by following the idea to its logical conclusion, to paint as absurd the concept of health care as a positive right. And I get it. It's absurd, laughable even. But I'm afraid that the sarcasm will be entirely lost on those who fervently believe that the universe owes them whatever their little hearts desire. No matter the theft, kidnapping, and murder that entails. Sigh...

  2. You're probably right. But maybe a few will scratch their heads a little, and think, "well, I don't really advocate THAT ... "