Monday, May 11, 2009

Responsibility Depends on Individual Rights

At his March 24, 2009, news conference, President Obama once again reminded us that “we all have responsibilities”, as he reiterated the need to “invest” in major healthcare reform.

The President is right to call on us to take responsibility. He is right to call for fundamental healthcare reform. But what, exactly, do they entail? And how are they related?

To be responsible means to think independently, to act upon one’s own rational judgement, and to take responsibility for one’s actions. To be responsible means to recognize, as any honest person does, that each of us must earn his own keep and cannot consume more than he has produced. To be responsible, one must be free to do so. A responsible government protects every individual’s right to his freedom.

The responsible approach to healthcare reform begins with an examination of the existing structural impediments to the ability of individuals to the exercise and act upon their own judgement. If the President really means responsible, his reforms would begin dismantling the decades-long buildup of government interventions into the healthcare field that is responsible for its soaring costs.

He would end the government-imposed third-party-payer system, all government insurance mandates, and all legal barriers to interstate competition in health insurance. This will allow people to be responsible for the direct purchase of their own health care and health insurance. It will also liberate the insurance market, freeing insurers to compete directly for the business of the actual consumers of healthcare. Responsibility means recognizing the rights of consumers, patients, healthcare providers, and insurance companies to contract voluntarily with each other to mutual advantage. This will free employers from an irrational and increasingly untenable burden, and remove the loss of health insurance as a consequence of job loss or change.

Responsibility also means ending the unjust practice of forcing people to pay for other people’s healthcare. Lamenting the uninsured rings hollow when one considers the fact that the same person unable to afford his own health insurance nonetheless sees his earnings drained to support the elderly (Medicare), the poor (Medicaid), other peoples’ children (SCHIP), foreign aid healthcare spending such as former President Bush’s $50 billion AIDS relief package to Africa, etc, etc, etc. It is the responsibility of each of us, as individuals, to determine how we spend the money we earn…including when, who and in what capacity to help others.

Total healthcare spending in America today amounts to about $7500 per person. That’s $30,000 for a family of four. More than 80% of that total represents people spending other people’s money, a major contributor to large and unnecessary administrative costs. Rather than cycle our money through third parties, we (and our employers) should be free to direct our earnings into our own individual tax-free account, such as Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Each of us can then take responsibility for managing our own healthcare dollars…including retirement planning…rather than a middle man or third party such as government, employers, or insurance companies and HMOs.

These steps would be consistent with the President’s call for both responsibility and major healthcare reform.

President Obama often speaks of responsibilities (or "obligations") accompanying our rights. That responsibility means respecting the rights of others. Each of us has the right to be responsible for our own healthcare. In short, that means free market capitalism…the only political/economic system based upon individual rights. It is only through the exercise of our unalienable rights that we can become truly responsible citizens. The government’s proper role is to protect individual rights, which includes protecting the sanctity of contracts, mediation of contractual disputes, and vigorous enforcement of the laws against fraud and breech of contract.

Of course, when President Obama speaks of “responsibility”, it is not the personal, take-charge-of-your-own-life variety that he speaks of. He means it in the altruistic, communitarian sense of being “our brothers’ keeper”. Said the President:

"But one of the most important lessons to learn from this crisis is that our economy only works if we recognize that we’re all in this together, that we all have responsibilities to each other and to our country."

He means that we are all responsible for the well-being of others, not of respecting each other’s right to the pursuit of his own well-being and happiness. He means for us to seek our own welfare not through our own efforts, but through the efforts of others.

His statement, “we’re all in this together, that we all have responsibilities to each other and to our country”, is a statist concept alien to a nation founded on the moral principle of individual rights. Statism holds that the individual’s life belongs to the collective, as represented by the state. His idea of “responsibility” is for each of us to set aside any selfish concern for our own individual lives, liberty, and property. We must submit to control by a government medical elite who we don’t know and who doesn’t know us, but who acts in the name of some mystical higher entity called “the common good”. His is a call for dependency and for the reign of the unearned.

There is, indeed, a connection between healthcare reform and personal responsibility. Unfortunately, Obama’s policies would sever personal responsibility from healthcare decision-making, leading to the opposite result of the goal of a more responsible citizenry. The principle that we are all responsible for each other actually rewards the irresponsible and penalizes the responsible.

The only true path towards the goal of “responsibility” and fundamental healthcare reform is the one that leads to the recognition of our unalienable individual rights, and consequently to free markets.

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