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Do You Want More Rights? Really?

When you're entitled to something at the cost of somebody else, everyone is worse off.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 13, 2010

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Do You Want More Rights? Really?

In the May, 2010 The Freeman, Theodore Levy addresses the "right" to health care. 

But his question isn't philosophical. He's not making an ethical comparison between "negative rights" (the right to be left alone) vs. "positive rights" (the right to be provided a service by compelling someone else to pay for it). Instead, he asks if we even want health care to be considered a legal right. After all,

"The government cannot produce or purchase an infinite amount of health care. Decisions have to be made about what the right to health care includes: Does it include free visits to the doctor anytime you want? MRIs and CTs to check out every pain? Dialysis and kidney transplants for all? Free paid leave for every bout of depression? Experimental therapy? Any and all preventive screening tests? We could spend the entire federal budget on health care and not provide all of that to every American. A right to health care does not guarantee you'll have all you might want or need."

Levy asks whether we really want health care to be a "right" fought over politically, or rather something people just have in a free market. He notes that gadgets like iPods get better and less expensive all the time without government. It is claimed that health care is "different." But, Levy notes,

"[W]hen the market is allowed to work–in Lasik eye surgery or cosmetic surgery or when patients with health savings accounts shop around–similar price drops are seen. It's only when third parties, like the government or large, highly regulated insurance companies, pay for health care that prices go up every year."

People fight over "rights" in the political arena. They win some, they lose some.  Whereas free markets provide stuff we want.

Levy's piece underscores the fact that some words are loaded with moral and ethical connotations. "Rights" is certainly one of them. Once a "right" is asserted, the argument is supposed to end, with the person denying the "right" looking like the bad guy:

"People have a right to health care."

"No, they do not."

"So, you want people to die?"

But, how can it be a "right" when it is based on the assumption that there will be enough medical professionals to provide it? What if no one wants to be a doctor? Where is your "right" then?

"People have the right to a 'living wage.'"

"No, they do not."

"So, you want people to starve?

But is it true that every job is meant to be a career on which to support a family? Some jobs are best left for unskilled young people seeking spending money, or for apprentices, or for interns. Forcing a hike in wages will increase the labor costs of production, which in turn will lead to higher prices on the very people earning the living wage. This means they will demand an even higher living wage. It will also lead to less job creation, as some jobs will be eliminated and more work will be imposed on the remaining employees. More young people will miss the experience and lessons of their first job.

The "right" to a living wage is a self-defeating proposition. Standard of living doesn't rise with a mandatory hike in wages, it rises as goods and services improve in quality while prices decline over time. Forcing wage hikes will only delay any real improvement in the quality of life.

"People have a right to pay fair prices and not be overcharged."

"No, they do not."

"Why are you taking the side of greedy businessmen?"

Well, who is to determine "fair?" Spirit Airlines decided to charge from $20 to $45 for carry-on luggage. This appalled the Transportation Secretary and several members of Congress, even though the airline also lowered ticket prices by more than the luggage surcharge, and the purpose was to speed up security lines and boarding time. (See the story on John Stosell's tv show.)

Sen. Harkin believes that ATM fees over 50 cents is too much, and wants a law passed setting that price. But the only result from this will be fewer ATMs with less choice and convenience for consumers.

The more we proclaim a good or a convenience a "right," the less of it we will get.

These "positive rights" in which you are entitled to something at the expense of someone else, are not desirable in any practical sense. The more we pretend that consumer goods are actually "rights" to be secured by the government, we will not only (and ironically) be less free, we will be materially worse off.

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