The test of whether one has a “right” to something is whether someone else has a duty to provide it. The two—a right and its correlative duty—are logically inseparable; like mountain and valley or ebb and flow, one exists only with the other. Hence if no one has a duty to provide you something, you have no right to it; and you can claim a right to something only if it is someone else’s duty to provide it for you.
What is not the test for having a right to something is that one really, really wants it. I would love a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and it would make my life much more enjoyable if I had one. But I have no right to one because, if I did, that would mean someone else has a duty to provide it for me—which of course is absurd.
Yet consider health care. Many assert that people have a right to basic health care. But health care does not grow on trees: It is provided only at considerable expense on the part of other people, and that expense must be procured from somewhere. So when you claim that you have a right to health care, you are claiming you have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, and hard work. Do you?
It is hard to imagine that we must actually answer that question, but in these days of political fairy tales, let us be clear: You do not have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, or hard work. It might be nice of them to give it to you; it might be charitable or generous or magnanimous or otherwise praiseworthy if they gave some of it to you. But you have no right to it. Sorry.
Perhaps you’re inclined to think that the “right to life” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence entitles you to health care. That’s a mistake, if an easy and common one. What the Declaration claims you have a natural right to are things that do not require others to take positive action to provide. It lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: I can respect your “natural rights” to these by simply leaving you alone, by refraining from molesting you. That is a “negative” duty, a duty not to undertake unjust actions. This kind of duty we can indeed believe everyone has toward everyone else, because everyone can simultaneously respect everyone else’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply, as Adam Smith put it, “by sitting still and doing nothing.”
By contrast, granting people a right to health care means imposing positive duties on some for the benefit of others. That is precisely the sort of liberty-impinging exploitation that the Declaration meant to rule out. Congressional action declaring it legal does not change its essential character, just as the legality of slavery at one time in this country did not alter its essential character. Using some for the benefit of others has an intrinsic moral repugnance that is not erased by congressional action or by closing our eyes to the actual source of or the full costs of the proposed benefits.
Take one other case. A measure in the recently passed ObamaCare bill prohibits private companies from offering federally guaranteed student loans, leaving the federal government itself as the only lender. Part of the rationale for this is that people have a “right” to education that should, therefore, be guaranteed and provided by the government.
But no one has a right to a college education. This case is even easier than that of health care. Can people survive without a college education? Yes, of course, and quite famously—as several United States presidents, Nobel laureates, and billionaire entrepreneurs (like Bill Gates and Michael Dell) all amply attest. College education is a luxury, not a necessity; and if having a college degree means increased earnings for the graduate, shouldn’t it be the graduate who pays for it?
Regardless, the real test, again, is whether others have a duty to provide it. College education, like health care, is not free. If “the government” is subsidizing, guaranteeing, or underwriting your education, the true, full costs are still borne somewhere by someone.
The would-be beneficiaries of such manufactured “rights” have understandable, if misguided, reasons for asserting them. And of course politicians’ moral grandstanding is also understandable, if lamentable.
But let us not forget the longsuffering taxpayer who is bled, again and again, to support these programs. We may find, sooner than we care to suppose, that the taxpayer simply has no more to give.