Rights Versus Wishes — How Are They Different and Why Does It Matter?

Is health care a right?

We are hearing that is. Not for the first time. This idea has been expressed many times in the past, but it has never come to be. Should it? No, and the reason why it should not ever become the law of the land is set forth herein.

The kind of right that it is implied in these claims is not the sort of rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. Those might be called “negative rights,” not to disparage them but merely to define them. They signal to other people to some extent and to the government in an absolute sense.

As Walter E. Williams explains below, those rights do not impose any obligation on others or on the government. They merely tell everyone, including especially the government, to leave us alone so long as we are not saddling others with any obligation they haven’t agreed to accept.

We have the right to speak, but we have no right to force anyone to listen to us or to provide us with a platform from which to speak. We have a right to keep and bear arms, but we have no right to use them in any manner that will violate the law or bring harm to another person who is not threatening us with serious injury or death.

Suppose the rights in the Bill of Rights were positive rights. Wouldn’t that mean I have the right to own a gun and I also have a right to make other people buy guns for me? All will agree that would be absurd.

The right to health care, as it is currently being discussed, will be such a right.  If ever adopted into law it will be a “positive” right. In other words, if I have a positive right to health care, then you and your fellow Americans have an obligation to provide me with health care and to pay the bill for me as well.

Similarly,  I have the obligation to pay whatever increase in taxes may be necessary to fund health care for everyone. That is the Catch 22 in the so-called right to health care. You may get that right, but you’ll also have to pay the bill for everyone else because they also will have the right to force you and I and every other American to pay for it.

It will be very expensive because the government will be the administrator and Lord Protector of it.

Walter E. Williams eloquently explains it all:


“True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

For Congress to guarantee a right to health care, or any other good or service, whether a person can afford it or not, it must diminish someone else’s rights, namely their rights to their earnings. The reason is that Congress has no resources of its very own. Moreover, there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy giving them those resources. The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces one to recognize that in order for government to give one American citizen a dollar, it must first, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

To argue that people have a right that imposes obligations on another is an absurd concept. A better term for new-fangled rights to health care, decent housing and food is wishes. If we called them wishes, I would be in agreement with most other Americans for I, too, wish that everyone had adequate health care, decent housing and nutritious meals. However, if we called them human wishes, instead of human rights, there would be confusion and cognitive dissonance. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to be pressed into making someone else’s wish come true.

None of my argument is to argue against charity. Reaching into one’s own pockets to assist his fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation.”

See also the updated version of Walter Williams essay on rights versus wishes.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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