Why a “Right” to Health Care is a Moral Travesty

We face a health-care crisis in America. Costs are astronomical—and rising—while, in significant respects, quality of care is declining.

We’re told that the health-care entitlement programs created decades ago were necessary to make care affordable. Yet, despite continued expansions of these programs, health care has never been more expensive. Nonetheless, proponents of such entitlements advise that we follow Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and others into the brave new world of “universal health care.”

Many commentators have pointed out the practical failings of such programs. The all-you-can-use buffet of “universal health care” has led to a dearth of quality and affordable care, rendering the very meaning of the phrase absurd. Imagine, for instance, you’ve just found out that you have cancer. Naturally, you want to start treatment immediately. However, the doctor tells you it will be nearly a month before you can start, which is the current average wait time to begin cancer treatment in Canada.1 Is this the health care we want in America? A report by Canadian researchers states:

Research has repeatedly indicated that wait times for medically necessary treatment are not benign inconveniences. Wait times can, and do, have serious consequences such as increased pain, suffering, and mental anguish. In certain instances, they can also result in poorer medical outcomes—transforming potentially reversible illnesses or injuries into chronic, irreversible conditions, or even permanent disabilities.2

When an Ontario doctor referred her patient to a neurologist, she was understandably outraged to receive notice of a four-and-a-half year wait time.3 Doctors flee Canada in droves while their counterparts in America are (for now) establishing cash-based surgery centers, catering to Canadians who can’t get care in their own country.

We hear equally disastrous reports about universal health care in Sweden and the United Kingdom. When the only maternity ward in a Swedish municipality shut down, midwives began to “offer parents-to-be classes on how to deliver babies in cars—which some have since done.”4 A Swedish girl, diagnosed with a hole in her heart at the age of twenty-one, spent more than a year in agony waiting for her surgery date. In the United Kingdom, people not only have a “right” to health care, they are also blessed with a “right to an 18-week waiting time” for “non-urgent referrals.”5 Yet, this supposed right is commonly violated when operations are repeatedly delayed. After his operation was delayed twice, a construction worker remarked, “This is a disgrace. We injure ourselves while working to pay our taxes, and the government just leaves us to suffer.”6

Despite the trail of destruction left by universal health care, despite the repeated demonstrations of its practical failure, some American politicians and “intellectuals” still urge that the United States adopt a similar system. Why?

According to proponents of universal health care, the practical problems of implementation can be solved (or are unimportant). The important question—and they are right about this—is, “What’s the right thing to do?” According to its advocates, we should implement universal health care, regardless of any practical problems, because it is a moral ideal. People need health care, the argument goes. Lives depend on it. So, people must have a “right” to health care. Thus, even if it’s likely to be difficult or disastrous, we should strive for this ideal.

Of course, lives also depend on food. Should we demand a “right” to food? What would this mean? If some people have a “right” to food, then it follows that others must have a duty to provide it. If that sounds wrong, there’s a good reason why it does.

Claiming a “right” to any good or service entails claiming a “right” to the labor—and thus the lives—of those who work to produce it. Claiming a “right” to someone else’s work and life is precisely what southern planters did before the Union smashed the Confederacy and abolished slavery. To claim a “right” to health care is to claim a “right” to the lives—that is, the time and effort—of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and all manner of health-care professionals. And it is all the more perverse given that the lives of those demanding such a “right” may someday be in the hands of those they propose to shackle.

Note that we can’t right such a wrong by robbing Peter to pay Paul. Of course, proponents of universal health care intend to pay medical professionals by means of taxation. However, money is only part of the issue, and for many, it’s far from being the most important. Suppose people demanded a “right” to the good or service that your company produces. The government undertakes to fulfill this “right” by becoming the “single payer” for your goods or services and the gatekeeper between you and your customers. Bureaucrats tell you how much they will pay and for what. But they will pay only if the mandated procedures are followed and necessary paperwork is filed correctly. A law is passed requiring a new procedure that you’re certain is a waste of time and that hinders your ability to serve your customers. More such regulations mount until most of your job consists not of exercising your skill, your talent, your passion, but of keeping track of government-mandated, counterproductive minutia. You recall that you used to wake up motivated to achieve great things and to serve your customers to the best of your ability. Now you can’t bear to face your customers whose frequent complaints are justified but excruciatingly frustrating nonetheless. So, you count the hours in the days, the days in the years, and years until retirement. You watch your dreams shrivel.

All people have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Clearly, no one can have a right that necessarily violates the rights of others. As Ayn Rand put it,

for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.7

So-called universal health care is not merely impractical. It is grotesquely immoral. Claiming a “right” to health care is claiming a “right” to the lives and labor of health-care professionals. Let’s remind those who advocate universal health care of its immorality each and every time they demand such a “right.”


1. Fraser Institute reports that patients “waiting for medical oncology begin treatment in 3.8 weeks.” See Bacchus Barua and David Jacques, “Waiting Your Turn: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada, 2018 Report,” Fraser Institute, December 4, 2018, https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/waiting-your-turn-2018.pdf, iii.

2. Barua and Jacques, “Waiting Your Turn,” iv.

3. Sonja Puzic, “‘It’s insane’: Ont. Patient Told She’d Have to Wait 4.5 Years to See Neurologist,” CTV News, November 2, 2017, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/it-s-insane-ont-patient-told-she-d-have-to-wait-4-5-years-to-see-neurologist-1.3661114.

4. “Swedes Face Problems with Health Care System,” Business Times, September 4, 2018.

5. “Guide to NHS Waiting Times in England,” National Health Service, https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/hospitals/guide-to-nhs-waiting-times-in-england/ (accessed December 14, 2018).

6. Ceylan Yeginsu, “N.H.S. Overwhelmed in Britain, Leaving Patients to Wait,” New York Times, January 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/world/europe/uk-national-health-service.html.

7. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964), 110.

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