Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Birth of a Right

Al Franken wrote to me this morning—we're tight, like that; he emails me a couple times a week—and he began:

Health care is a right. It's not a privilege.
Now, I've been in favor of universal health care in this country since before a lot of you were born, so I'm happy to see my buddy Al take up the cause. But it was the language that caught my attention. I hear this phrase a lot, these days, and I'm perplexed. Because in my youth, health care was not a right. Not even us leftie commies thought it was a right. It was something we thought everyone could and should have: but that's not quite the same thing. Rights are inalienable. They're intrinsic to being human. They're something—to stick to the ground they grew in—they're something that God intended as part of every human being's humanness.

A lot of people don't live on that ground anymore. I never did, having been raised atheist. So I'm a little cautious of the rhetoric of rights. What exactly are we talking about? Jefferson knew quite precisely. "They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." That's clear enough. But what do I mean, when I say that people have a right to free speech? Do I mean something other than "I think everybody ought to be able to speak freely"?

I think I do. Certainly we produce these assertions, not as our own whims, but gravely, as fundamental laws of human nature: we're not talking about "laws" like laws against jaywalking—our tone implies—but "laws" like the law of gravity. We may know that an ancient Greek would have been totally baffled by the notion that health care could be a right, (and would probably dispute that political rights could ever properly belong to someone who was not the male head of a freehold in the first place.) But we nevertheless hold that rights are—somehow—self-evident. Like my friend Al up there. He doesn't go on to argue it. You don't need to argue things like that. You state it and you're done.

You can see that this is true from the way the Republicans have fumbled the Obamacare repeal. You might expect Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell to say, "What nonsense. Health care is not a right. It's something you buy if you can afford it!" This is clearly what they think. But, as highly evolved political beings, they know, they can tell by its scent in the air, that to say so would be be political death. So they tie themselves in knots.

And at that point, when even the guys on the other side of the fence feel they can't deny it out loud, I think that we have to say—yes, health care has in fact become a right. Whatever rights may be, access to health care is one of them. So my question, dear reader, is—how did this happen? It's a sea change. A new right has been born in our very presence. Did you see it being born? Do you understand how it happened?

Or was I simply wrong, and has it been a right all along? Just because I was there to observe the waning years of the 20th Century, doesn't make me an expert on them.

I would love to know what you think! This one puzzles me.


Jarrett said...

The concept of rights remains largely alien to the British derived culture I lived in in Australia, exactly because of conundra like this. There was even a stillborn effort to create something like the US bill of rights, to which the near-universal educated response was: "What, and become prisoners of the absolutism of some constitutional word"? America's inability to respond to gun violence was the favored example. The British respect for tradition is reflected in how much more they have riding on it. Gay marriage? Well, it wasn't a good thing 20 years ago, but now we think it is, so let's do it. No "rights" involved!

Jeff S. said...

This is a fun question, Dale. You're right that we've conflated "rights" with things that are nice and that we wish people would have. This faux right was born in part because of our silly political culture in which we can't just criticize opponents for weighing the tradeoffs in different ways than we do. No, we must condemn them as murderers at heart.

As I see it, health care can't be a "right" because that would require other people to provide it to us, which can't be realistically guaranteed. Reductio ad absurdum comes in handy here: If there are more than 300 million Americans but only a few thousand specialist in a given field, so most people can't see one when they need one, whom can they sue for infringing their "right" to health care? All of the rights enumerated in our Bill of Rights restrict government from doing things to citizens. The idea that the government has to guarantee a service such as the upkeep of citizens' health belongs to a whole different ideological universe, one where there's infinite access to doctors.

Please note I say all this as someone who's heavily involved in a local charity that provides food, health-care assistance, rides to doctors' appointments--whatever a client needs. I can and do act on my belief that everyone deserves proper health care in a larger moral, ethical, and religious sense while also knowing that the idea of a legal "right" to health care is a civic fantasy.

tatz said...

Even in Canada, where basic healthcare has been available to everyone free of (direct) charge since the 1960s, and nobody freaks out about it because there are simple measures like progressive taxation that actually make it fairly easy for the country to afford, we don't think of it as a legal right. It is, though, considered something like a moral right, insofar as it helps ensure the dignity of the human. So I'll cheerfully use the language of rights when talking about it, especially to Americans, because part of what I'm trying to do is make the point is that those who can't afford care are just as worthy of it as those who can. We have a bad habit of confusing means with value, and we need to correct it.

There are, as Jeff S. notes, ethical grounds on which everyone "deserves" healthcare. And practical grounds, frankly, on which governments should wish to provide it. While you're right the framing is fallacious, I'm not sure that matters. If it succeeds in focusing people on an issue of vital importance to millions, I'll let the misapplication of the concept slide this once.

Sabine said...

I must admit that I had to look up what inalienable means in connection with rights and I am still confused as to who decided when and where what is natural and universal (and I am not going for a god explanation).

Here in my weird and botched up European country, health and consequently health care is a constitutional right. Article 2 of the German constitution states that every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Based on this, we have a book of social security statutes ensuring that nobody is excluded from health care, that health insurers cannot make undue profits etc.

And of course, it all rests on the first article of the German constitution: Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.

The basic concepts of the welfare state principle is taught in school and we all take it for granted. It just is. We are not a socialist commie liberal whatever you name it country, we are not good on solidarity as a people, but health care as a social principle of solidarity, it works.