This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that his chamber's health care bill "demands for the first time in American history that good health will not depend on great wealth." Reid said the legislation "acknowledges, finally, that health care is a fundamental right -- a human right -- and not just a privilege for the most fortunate."
Since more than four-fifths of Americans already have medical insurance, and even those without "great wealth" have been known to enjoy "good health," Reid was laying it on a little thick. But his premise, which is shared by President Obama, explains the moral urgency felt by supporters of the health care overhaul that is making its way through Congress. It also reveals a radical assault on the traditional American understanding of rights.
The Framers believed the Constitution recognized pre-existing rights, protecting them from violation by the government. The common law likewise developed as a way of protecting people from wrongful interference by their neighbors. If people have rights simply by virtue of being human, those rights can be violated (by theft or murder, for example) even in the absence of government.
By contrast, notwithstanding Reid's claim that government-subsidized health care is a fundamental human right, it does not make much sense to say that right exists in a country too poor to afford such subsidies or at a time before modern medicine, let alone in a state of nature. Did Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have a right to the "affordable, comprehensive and high-quality medical care" that the Congressional Progressive Caucus says is a right of "every person"? If so, who was violating that right?
During his second presidential debate with Republican nominee John McCain, Obama said health care "should be a right for every American." Why? "There's something fundamentally wrong," he said, "in a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills."
According to the president, people have a right to health care because it is wrong to charge them for medical services they can't afford. Which is another way of saying they have a right to health care.