My favorite political philosopher, Kevin Willams, distinguished a right from a demand in Health Care Is the Opposite of a Right:  (excerpt)

Goods are physical, while rights are metaphysical, and the actual facts of the real world are not transformed by our deciding to talk about them in a different way. Other declarations in the same form — “Health care is quintessentially axiomatic,” “Health care is candy-apple gray,” “Health care is a spastically cloistered bottle of courageous smoke,” etc. — would be equally meaningless as sentences.

“Health care is a right” is a sentence that fools some people into thinking that it means something because the synthetic impression of moral urgency that accompanies the declaration of “a right” overwhelms the ordinary logical faculty, which in many people is less developed than the emotional endowment, that widespread condition being the principal defect in democracy. When a politician declares a “right” in a scarce good, it indicates either that he is a simpleton or that he believes you to be, and one’s as good as the other, that being another defect in democracy.

Fundamentally, health care is not a moral question but an economic one. That much can be demonstrated by the fact that even if every American agreed with Senator Sanders about health care as a moral question, we’d still be obliged to approach it as an economic one — the moral consensus, even if it were not mistaken, would solve precisely nothing. Medical care costs something, and we have a social commitment to seeing to it that those costs don’t come down on vulnerable people in an unnecessarily burdensome way, part of what F. A. Hayek described as “providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.” Contra Senator Sanders et al., this is not a project that require socialism in any degree.

What it does require is responsibility — including responsible citizenship — and a clear-eyed understanding of the nature of the problem. What does it mean to be a responsible citizen? In the United States, we have a poor and diminished notion of citizenship, that citizens are only “taxpayers” and “voters.” Good citizens, in the inescapable contemporary formulation, are those who “play by the rules and pay their taxes.” That’s the real individual mandate: Pay and obey. The progressive proposition is that, in exchange for this obedience, childlike citizens are to be provided for by government in loco parentis, and that their role in this is almost entirely passive: submit to taxation, follow the regulations, receive the benefits. Hence the rhetoric of health care as a right.

A fuller and more mature notion of citizenship would be one that holds, as ours once did, that among the first duties of the citizen is to provide for himself and look after his family so as not to burden his neighbors unnecessarily. The rhetoric of benefits as rights cultivates just the opposite attitude, one of learned helplessness, not in response to extraordinary challenges but in the face of the ordinary business of life. That attitude of helplessness is of great benefit to a certain stripe of politician. It is not good for people or countries.


A right to a physical asset or service is a demand. Such a demand supported by political power quickly degenerates into theft and tyranny. I appreciate Kevin’s strong language to call it what it is.