In his confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary, Senator Bernie Sanders asked nominee Tom Price point blank if he believed healthcare is a right. Price completely blew it. Sanders offered Senator Ted Cruz the same challenge in a "Future of ObamaCare" Debate broadcast on CNN. Here is the exchange:
SANDERS: Is every American entitled -- and I underline that word -- to health care as a right of being an American? Yes or no?
CRUZ: You know, I'm glad you asked that. You know, right is a word you use a lot. Let's talk about what rights are. Rights mean you have a right for government not to mess with you, for government not to do things with you. If you look at the Bill of Rights, the Bill of Rights, free speech means the government can't silence you when you're speaking. Religious liberty means the government can't control who you worship, what your faith is.
The Second Amendment means the government can't take away your guns. Those are rights. You know, what the Declaration of Independence said, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
So what is a right is access to health care. What is a right is choosing your own doctor. And if you believe health care is a right, why on Earth did you help write Obamacare that caused six million people to have their health insurance canceled, that had them lose their doctors, and have people like LaRonda, who can't get health insurance, can't afford premiums...
SANDERS: For a start...
CRUZ: You're denying her what you say is her right.
SANDERS: Well, two things. You didn't answer the question, although I interpret your question to be that LaRonda does not have a right.
CRUZ: No, that's not what I said.
SANDERS: Woah, woah, woah, I heard the Bill of Rights.
CRUZ: What I said is access to health care. Access to health care is a right.
SANDERS: She has access. But she doesn't have enough money.
CRUZ: And choosing your doctor is a right.
SANDERS: Look, LaRonda, you have access right now. Go out and get a really great health insurance program. Oh, you can't do it? Because you can't afford it. All right? That's what he's saying. Access to what? You want to buy one of Donald Trump's mansions? You have access to do that, as well. Oh, you can't afford $5 million for a house? Sorry. Access doesn't mean a damn thing. What it means is whether people can afford it, can get the health care that they need.
CRUZ: And they can't under Obamacare.
Whereas Price completely evaded the issue of rights, Cruz at least dealt with it. He started off good. “Let's talk about what rights are.” Great. But whereas Price struck out looking at a big fat fastball down the middle of the plate—to repeat the baseball analogy I used in my post on Price—Cruz started his swing, then “checked” it, stopping short of completing the swing.
What’s disappointing is that Cruz clearly understands rights. Why didn’t he just come out and say it?: Rights are guarantees to freedom of action to pursue your own goals and flourishing, not a automatic claim on goods and services that others must be forced to provide.
Cruz certainly implied it. But he needn’t have relied on implication. He quotes from the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees the right to the pursuit, not “access,” to happiness. Pursuit is a much clearer term: “So what is a right is the pursuit of health care” would have been a better line. Having “access” implies getting it. By fudging it, Cruz gave Sanders a great opening: “She has access. But she doesn't have enough money.” Sanders is right on Cruz’s own terms, and he took full advantage it. If you’re going to argue for a right to access, then you’re implying that there is a right to access the money to pay for it.
Cruz needn’t have set himself up this way. Right after quoting the Declaration is where Cruz “checked his swing,” rather than complete his swing and hit it out of the park. Trapped by his own rhetoric, he retreated into pointing out the failures of ObamaCare. Had he clearly and simply defined rights, explicitly drawing on the Declaration, he could have said something along these lines:
“Just as the guarantee of the right to the pursuit of happiness does not guarantee happiness, so the right to the pursuit of healthcare does not guarantee healthcare, because their is no right to access other people’s wallets against their will to pay for it. The government’s job is to protect individual rights, including rights to properly obtained property, equally and at all times. There is no right to expect the government to violate other people’s property rights by taking their money to pay for healthcare that you cannot afford, any more than you have a right to take matters into your own hands and rob your neighbor at gunpoint to pay for your healthcare. The government should not be above the same moral law that we as private citizens must abide.
“It follows that there is no right to healthcare. There is only the right to the pursuit of healthcare or health insurance through one’s own work efforts and resources, or through the voluntary charity. This is the essence of America’s unique social compact. You are both protected from human predators, and forbidden to become one. The purpose of government is to enforce that compact, not become a tool of predation. The idea that healthcare is a right turns government into that tool. It is un-American.”
Perhaps Cruz won’t be so explicit because the same principles apply to every government program that forcible redistributes wealth, from public education to Social Security. And it’s true. Sanders could have called Cruz out on all of the welfare state holy grails, and Cruz would have had to acknowledge that all of these government programs violate the principle of rights. But that’s exactly what it’s going to take to restore freedom in healthcare. And why not say it? For example, consider this hypothetical exchange:
SANDERS: The same argument about rights can be used against Social Security. Do you advocate abolishing Social Security?
CRUZ: It’s true that Social Security violates the principle of rights, because there is no right to retirement income that others must be forced to provide. However, given the program’s entrenchment in people’s lives, I would not advocate its abolition, which in any event is politically impossible at this time. I would, however, advocate reforms that make Social Security a little more rights-respecting, such as personal, privately directed accounts within Social Security.
SANDERS: Then if you can accept Social Security, why not ObamaCare?
CRUZ: Because we have to draw the line somewhere, lest we have a continued erosion of individual liberty, setting us down the road to destruction like has happened in every fully socialist country from Soviet Russia to Red China to modern day Venezuela. The issue today is ObamaCare. Let’s stick to that. ObamaCare ignored the government causes of the very problems it was allegedly designed to fix—tax policies that tie health insurance to employment; that forbid and limit competition; mandates that burden insurers and their customers with unwanted, unneeded, or unaffordable coverages. Shouldn’t we address the causes of the problems of pre-existing conditions and soaring cost, rather than further limit freedom while ignoring the causes? ObamaCare ignored real fixes, and just compounded the problems. But the main reason is that Obamacare is immoral because it violates the fundamental rights of Americans who are forced to pay for the subsidies and who are forced to choose only among government-approved health insurance policies. [In this regard, see Paul Hsieh, The Battle Of The Narrative: How Ordinary Americans Can Fight ObamaCare: “]W]e should not let the government escape responsibility for problems they’ve created,” he writes. “If we let the government shift responsibility for ObamaCare’s problems onto the residual private sector, those problems will eventually be used to justify a government-run ‘single payer’ system.”]
Sanders is making a big push for a complete government takeover of medicine based on government as the single payer (he favors Medicare for All). Central to his efforts is the demonstrably false and immoral idea that healthcare is a right. Defenders of liberty and the American principle of inalienable individual rights must confront Sanders’ challenge head on—we must and we can, not just for the sake of freedom in healthcare, but freedom in general. If we can’t refute the right to healthcare, what “right” to any good or service can we refute? If one unfilled economic need translates into a right to access others’ wallets, with the government as the hired gun, then why not any unmet economic need? Then none of us has a right to what we have earned as long as someone, somewhere needs something. End of economic freedom. End of political freedom.
Refuting Sanders’ clearly and unequivocally on his “right to healthcare” will shift the moral center of gravity toward freedom in the battle over healthcare. Political compromises will still be inevitable. But finally, it will be the Left that will be on the defensive. That’s crucial in restoring liberty in healthcare and, more broadly, in rolling back the regulatory welfare state. Price blew it on the crucial issue of individual rights. Cruz, who knows better and in fact did better, still managed to leave Sanders with the moral high ground. However well Cruz did in the rest of the debate, his collapse on the issue of rights was another lost opportunity.
The central issue in the healthcare debate is not economic. It is the moral question of whether healthcare is a right. The self-described socialist Bernie Sanders knows it. It’s about time our side knew it, too. With ObamaCare once again on the political front burner, we can’t afford many more lost opportunities to capture what naturally belongs to advocates of liberty, the moral high ground. Without the moral high ground, any successes in reducing the harmful effects of ObamaCare will be short-lived. With the moral high ground, we will have captured the momentum for liberty.
HHS Secretary Nominee Tom Price Whiffs in Confrontation With Bernie Sanders Over a ‘Right’ to Healthcare
Moral Health Care vs. "Universal Health Care"—Paul Hsieh for The Objective Standard
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