The Problem With Making Everything a Right

By Indri Schaelicke | United States

The issue of healthcare and many other potential government-provided services is often a hot topic during races for election. As we gear up for midterm elections this November, we are sure to hear many of our left-wing candidates promise to enact policies which declare certain goods and services, like healthcare, a right of the people. There is a major problem with this idea.

To start, an important distinction must be made between positive and negative rights. Positive rights are rights which impose a burden or duty on others to provide a good or service at any given time.

Negative rights are a prohibition on certain acts by the government or some other party. For example, people have a right to not have their property stolen by either the government or an outside party. The Bill of Rights is an enumeration of the things government cannot do to private citizens.

Most people agree with the idea of negative rights. They see the very real threat of a tyrannical government coming into existence if it is not restrained by negative rights. Our founding fathers found negative rights to be so valuable that many of their home states refused to ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Only after James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights did the Anti-Federalists come on board with the ratification of the Constitution.

Part of the reason that there is currently a movement to expand positive rights is that the lay public tends to confuse access to a good or service with a requirement to provide a good or service. It is easy to say “healthcare should be a right” when you want everyone to have access to high quality, affordable care. However, unless a closer look is taken at what that truly means, we may quickly find ourselves at the bottom of a slippery slope, wondering how we managed to end up there.

Rights are something that are undeniable by the government. When goods and services are made a “right” it becomes mandatory that they be available for citizens at any time. This means that someone must be on hand to provide the “right” at any moment, a slippery slope to conscription and tyranny. For example, if healthcare is declared to be a right, doctors can be forced -at the threat of violence- by the government to treat someone. In essence, private citizens will be conscripted into providing services for people they do not know, at less pay than they would receive in the free market. Plus, the goods and services would be provided at lower quality as the government would be responsible for collecting the inputs and resources used in production and is likely not an expert in the field. Going back to the example of healthcare as a right, bureaucrats- who do not have degrees in medicine- would be responsible for ordering the supplies and tools available to the doctors to use during their procedures. Only the doctors know what equipment is best for a given procedure, so much inefficiency would result.

Our political culture must reverse course and move in the direction of advocating for less positive rights. Voluntary interactions between two consenting parties always create the greatest gain possible because each participant will only complete the transaction if it benefits them. When government forces individuals to provide services on behalf of another citizen, only one part is voluntarily interacting, and the gains are not nearly as great. Capitalism incentivizes high-quality production because that is what generates the greatest profit. As a nation, we should say no to government redistribution of our services and allow the free market to allocate them.

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