Nancy Pelosi appeared on Meet the Press this weekend and offered her usual parade of inane and evasive talking points. But the one that had me flinging the remote against the wall was the banal assertion that “health care is a right.” No Nancy, it most certainly is not a right as our rights are (supposed to be) understood.
The genius of Magna Carta was its codification of a revolutionary concept: that our rights are natural and inherent in the law of the land. This means that “the law” as understood by those British rebels at Runnymede predated any arbitrary laws designed by men. It was a radical and unique notion for humans to declare that their rights were natural and that man’s laws were always subordinate to the natural law that existed (but prior to 1215, was never really acknowledged) before. Rights such as habeus corpus, representative democracy and property rights were enshrined in Magna Carta. The spirit of these British pioneers achieved its highest embodiment with the US Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1789. Many today do not realize that the addition of an enumerated list of “rights” to the Constitution was a controversial and bitterly contested idea. Which brings us back to the very meaning of “rights.”
The reason the Bill of Rights was so controversial owes much to Magna Carta. Seeding the idea that rights were natural and precluded any efforts by the State to take them from individuals, the fundamental premise of liberty thus germinated for centuries, culminating in the purest elevation of individual over State in Philadelphia. Rights were perceived as negative, in the sense that they outlined what the State could not negate from the individual: life, property, jury trial, etc. But for many of the Founders, rights were innumerable, and thus need not be transcribed as amendments to the Constitution. These men feared that a list of rights would lead to the State ultimately assuming that any rights not explicitly written down were not rights at all, or rather that anything not contained in the Bill of Rights would fall to the dominion of the State. A compromise was reached eventually, wherein the 9th amendment (ratified 1791) allowed that all other rights not transcribed in prior amendments were still in fact individual rights that the State could do nothing to negate. The prevailing argument that won out in the end was that certain rights just needed to be codified, but that the rest were still important and still the province of the individual, not the State.
But there are many “rights” that have evolved over the years, thanks almost exclusively to progressives and socialists, that are best defined as “positive rights.” Health care, shelter, food and wage are the best examples of positive rights. A positive right infers that the State must provide something to you, since it is your “right” to have, say, health insurance. But the State possesses only a single, solitary commodity – force – and therefore is ill-equipped to provide anything to its citizens without forcible redistribution. So in order to provide for positive rights, the State must forcibly take from one to give to another. This is most often done via taxation and, as we all know, much of the impetus for the American Revolution was unjust taxation, so it’s fair to assume that the Founders would have been no fans of positive rights.
And yet this terrible idea persists, and has in fact become so enmeshed in modern conventional wisdom that it is near blasphemy to suggest that things such as health care, food and shelter are anything but “basic human rights.” The provision of positive rights utilizes what Frederic Bastiat dubbed “legal plunder” in his seminal 1850 essay “The Law.” Bastiat maintained that the law was being perverted by factions of society to be used against other factions. Once this practice became normalized, Bastiat feared there would be no end, as the aggrieved faction one day would conspire to pervert the law to its whims and against another faction the next. How prescient he was, as this pitiful reality continues unabated into the 21st century. In order to convince our fellow citizens that legal plunder is wrong, we must disavow them of the idea that positive rights are merited, or even that they exist.