One of the most ruinous of all ideas is the notion that people have a right to things that can only be obtained by taking the property or restricting the liberty of others. In the letter below, Don Boudreaux comments on the claim that we have a right to health care.

26 December 2010

Editor, Boston Globe

Dear Editor:

Ronald Pies, MD, asserts that every individual has a “right” to “basic health
care” – meaning, a right to receive such care without paying for it (Letters,
Dec. 26).

The rights that Americans wisely cherish as being essential for a free society
require only the refraining from action. Your right to speak freely requires me simply not to stop you from speaking; it does not require me to supply your megaphone.

Not so with a “right” to “basic health care.” Elevating free access to a scarce
good into a “right” imposes on strangers all manner of ill-defined positive
obligations – obligations that necessarily violate other, proper rights. For
example, perhaps my “right” to basic health care means that I can force Dr. Pies away from his worship service in order that he attend (free of charge!) to my ruptured spleen. Or perhaps it means that I have the “right” to pay for my
health care by confiscating part of his income. If so, how much of his income
does my “right” entitle me to confiscate? Who knows?

And if Dr. Pies is planning to retire, do I have the “right” to force him to
continue to work so that the supply of basic health care doesn’t shrink? If Dr.
Pies should die, am I entitled – again, to keep the supply of basic health care
from shrinking – to force his children to study and practice medicine?

Does my right to basic health care imply that I can force my neighbor to pay for my cross-country skiing vacation on grounds that keeping fit is part of basic health care?

Talking about “rights” to scarce goods and services sounds right only to persons who are economically illiterate, politically naive, and suffering the delusion that reality is optional.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University