Monday, July 31, 2017

Healthcare is not a right, but...

Remember the last episode of Seinfeld?  The gang is imprisoned forever with each other for failing to rescue a stranger.  For them, at least, Hell will be other people.  I didn't like that last episode, not because I didn't think the characters deserved each other as eternal punishment, but because the premise - that one can be punished for not helping others - is bad law.  Indeed, the greatest difference between here and the hereafter is that here we are not punished for being selfish jerks. I have since forgiven the dramatic license, but in the moment, the lawyer in me got the better of me.

Being rescued is not a right, because it is impossible to prove that one knew that one could have effected a rescue without paying some unreasonable price.  Where does one draw the line on who should rescue whom from what?  The idea is unworkable, and common law, at least, has rejected it.  You cannot have a right to be rescued if no one has a duty to rescue you.

And yet, certain politicians - I hesitate to call them "liberals" anymore, as such labels are losing their focus - claim that healthcare is a "right."  But healthcare is a rescue, and the law says you have no right to be rescued, because no one has the duty to rescue you.  People can volunteer to rescue you, and the society as a whole can agree, in a binding way, to "rescue" you by giving you the funds to buy healthcare from someone who will voluntarily sell it to you.  But those decisions do not arise from the idea that healthcare is a right, but rather from a political consensus that having others pay for one's own care should be a right.  Pols like Pelosi and Sanders argue that we should make healthcare a right because it is a right.  Huh?

I don't believe in economic rights.  In the grand scheme of things, everything is a luxury that some people cannot afford.  How many people are denied the luxury of a roof over their heads and three square meals a day?  We call these things necessities in common parlance to distinguish them from things we can more easily do without, but in the great algebraic continuum of desiderata, there are no necessities, only priorities.  Thus, by calling healthcare a luxury, I am not saying that only wealthy individuals should have health care.  I am saying that only wealthy people can have it.

I say "wealthy people" because a society can declare that all of its people are, by virtue of their membership in the society at any given time, wealthy enough to have healthcare.  All of the industrialized West, except the US of A, has determined that their polities are wealthy enough for all of their members to have healthcare regardless of their individual ability to pay.  One could say that, in such places, healthcare is a "right."  But that's a post hoc legal term, not an a priori bit of natural law from which one can reason - or argue- to a legislative conclusion.

How, then, do we get there?  There's been a lot of talk recently about a guaranteed basic income (GBI).  Lifetime healthcare has an actuarial cost that is more or less equal for all people.  If we assume that healthcare is a valuable commodity, then lifetime healthcare is a guaranteed basic income, delivered in a gift card rather than cash.  I'll bet there's a pretty strong overlap between those who favor universal healthcare and those who support the GBI.  But is the GBI a right?  If not, how can a targeted, actuarially determinable GBI be a right?  Because that's all universal healthcare is.

I like the GBI.  I think the time has come to make "survival" a right.  We should provide a roof and three squares a day to any American who wants them.  And healthcare. We are that wealthy.  We can afford that luxury.  But we can start with healthcare.

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