On January 19th of this year, Senator Bernie Sanders asked Tom Price (Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services) whether healthcare was a human right. In the exchange that followed, Sanders declared “We are not a compassionate society!” . In May of 2011, a United Nations report declared that access to the Internet is a human right . This has left me wondering about the implications of how we define a human right.
Both healthcare and the Internet are products produced by man. Engineers and scientists create the solutions that we call healthcare; doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals diagnose and implement previously developed solutions. There is a massive amount of effort and investment behind healthcare. Similarly, the internet is a product. The “Internet” is constituted by transmission lines laid across the world, computers, protocols, software, and content. Each of these aspects required invention, development, construction, maintenance, and creativity.
What is a politician saying when he/she says that access to these products are human rights? That politician is literally claiming that all people are due, by the mere fact of their existence, the products and efforts of other human beings. Furthermore, that politician is implying that the role of the government is to ensure access to those products. Behind every government action is the threat of force; that is, if one does not comply with a government action then he or she will eventually be faced with a gun. (The process is as follows: one faces sanctions for his/her disobedience; he/she is then arrested and incarcerated for not complying with those sanctions; and if he/she resists the arrest, then the person will have a gun pointed at him/her.) So, by calling healthcare or access to the Internet a human right, a politician is claiming that the producers of that product or service (e.g. engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, technicians, and developers) must do so in compliance with government demands or eventually be subject to force.
There are several consequences to a government’s imposition. In England and Kenya, which have single payer systems for medical services, the government’s regulation of the healthcare industry has led to several strikes by doctors who would like to provide medical services but don’t want to do so according to the regulations [3,4,5]. Additionally, there has been a mass exodus of doctor’s leaving England to work abroad where there are fewer regulations . Additionally, when a government imposes regulations on industries, the process is easily corrupted by lobbying and kickbacks. In “The Price of Medicine in the US” (a previous article of this blog), I wrote about how companies in the pharmaceutical industry were able to use lobbying and other rewards to ensure that they would reap large profits from Medicare and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) .
And if we are permitted to claim that the efforts and products of others are human rights, what’s to prevent us from claiming that all products and services are human rights? Do humans have the right to movie theater tickets? To popcorn in the movie theater? To a massage after attending the theater? This doesn’t seem appropriate; why not? What is it about these products and services that seems to exclude them from the category of human rights?
I think it’s a falsehood to claim that the public has access to the efforts of others by calling it a human right. It is a way for a politician to place the accused on the defensive: how dare one attempt to counter access to a human right. Instead, I offer a partial definition of a human right: a human cannot have the right to the efforts of another human.
In the declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men.
Note that each of the rights listed (Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness) satisfy my definition. One can live, be free, and pursue happiness without having access to the efforts of another human. However, the above definition excludes massages, popcorn, theater tickets, access to the Internet, and healthcare.
Note that I have not claimed that the government should not be involved in the distribution of healthcare or access to the Internet (or even theater tickets or massages). But if we, the public, choose to empower our government to become involved in these industries, then we should describe it appropriately: it would be a redistribution of wealth (since effort and invention are directly translatable to wealth) from one group of people to another. And in some sectors, this may be appropriate. By framing government regulation accurately, I hope that we can have a much more productive dialog about how our government should or should not impose itself on industry.