Health Care: A Right or a Commodity?
The notion that health care is a basic right is not merely an alternative point of view to the idea that health care is a commodity. The reality is that rights and commodities are fundamentally and objectively different entities, and the differences between the two do not magically vanish just because a person or organization philosophically believes that one can be regarded as the other.
A right is a limitation on coercion. The right to free speech, for example, is a limitation on the power of government to censor and restrict expression. The right of an employee to quit a job is a limitation on the power of the employer to hold him or her in that job. Because rights are abstract, scarcity does not affect them. For example, the citizens of a country of 50 million people do not find their freedom of speech cut in half when the population grows to 100 million people.
A commodity is a scarce resource that has alternative uses. The paper, ink, and intellectual and physical labor that are required to create a newspaper are all commodities. While free speech is an abstract idea, the myriad goods and services that must be allocated and coordinated to create even a single newspaper are concrete realities. Since commodities, unlike abstract rights, require time, labor, and material for their creation, they have intrinsic costs that do not go away simply because someone mislabels them as a “right.”
People who assert that health care is a basic right are doubtless motivated by a commendable humanitarian concern for their fellow man. Unfortunately, the laws of economics have little regard for human sensibilities. A “right” to health care does not and will never mean that the time, effort, and skill of a physician or nurse practitioner or the services of a laboratory or the diagnostic imaging facility or the development of a new drug will suddenly be available free of charge. Nothing in life is free, including health care.