All Commentary
Friday, August 31, 2007

Counterfeit Rights, Cold Bureaucracies

If you were reading with only one eye open or only two hours’ sleep you might have thought Paul Krugman had finally stumbled onto the truth. In his Monday New York Times op-ed, A Socialist Plot, he wrote:

[M]any American families with middle-class incomes do send their kids to school at public expense, so taxpayers without school-age children subsidize families that do. And the effect is to displace the private sector: if public schools weren’t available, many families would pay for private schools instead.

So let’s end this un-American system and make education what it should be – a matter of individual responsibility and private enterprise. Oh, and we shouldn’t have any government mandates that force children to get educated, either….

The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. It’s just a matter of historical accident that we think of access to free K-12 education as a basic right, but consider having the government pay children’s medical bills welfare, with all the negative connotations that go with that term.

Alas, Krugman had not finally gotten the point. He was mocking conservatives for opposing tax-financed medical care for children while supporting tax-financed schooling. [T]hinking about how we’d react if they [conservatives] said the same things about education [as they say about health care] helps dispel the fog of obfuscation right-wingers use to obscure the true nature of their position on children’s health, Krugman wrote. He went on:

The great majority of Americans believe that everyone is entitled to a chance to make the most of his or her life. Even conservatives usually claim to believe that. For example, N. Gregory Mankiw, the former chairman of the Bush Council of Economic Advisers, contrasts the position of liberals, who he says believe in equality of outcomes, with that of conservatives, who he says believe that the goal of policy should be to give everyone the same shot and not be surprised or concerned when outcomes differ wildly.

But a child who doesn’t receive adequate health care, like a child who doesn’t receive an adequate education, doesn’t have the same shot — he or she doesn’t have the same chances in life as children who get both these things.

And insurance is crucial to receiving adequate health care….

We offer free education, and don’t worry about middle-class families getting benefits they don’t need, because that’s the only way to ensure that every child gets an education — and giving every child a fair chance is the American way. And we should guarantee health care to every child, for the same reason.

We’ll let slide for the moment the nature of this guarantee of education that Krugman wishes to extend to medical care.

In one sense he is right. Conservatives who support tax-financed schools are hoist by their own petard.

As I argued last week, bad policy positions drive out good. If a person supports government-sponsored schooling while opposing government-sponsored medicine on free-market grounds, his credibility and commitment to principle will questioned. That will benefit the advocates of state schooling.

Liberty versus Power

The most important debate of our time is between liberty and power. The real contenders in that debate are those who are consistent: the libertarians and the total statists. Middle-of-the-roaders who seek a comfortable combination of freedom and unfreedom are doomed to long-term failure. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Anatomy of Compromise, In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins. That’s the power of logic.

As noted, Krugman wrote, The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. What can the champion of an education entitlement who opposes a medical entitlement say in response? There’s nothing to say. Point Krugman. That’s the meaning of Rand’s maxim.

Now let Krugman take on a consistent libertarian. Krugman may be consistent in the respect being discussed here, but he is not consistent down the line. I’m sure he favors civil liberties like freedom of speech and press. But that position conflicts with his support of taxpayer-financed medicine and schools. He would be hard pressed to explain why taking people’s money and giving it to others is not a violation of personal freedom.

What the advocates of the rights to medical care and education don’t see is that these must be counterfeit rights. Rights are principles for promoting self-development and social cooperation by averting conflict. They draw a moral boundary around each individual so that each knows what is his or hers and what is not. An alleged right that requires people to do more than abstain from interfering with others cannot be a right, for what becomes of the rights of those on whom the demands are made? Education and medical care are not found in nature. They must be provided by other people’s labor and resources. Thus a right (entitlement) to those things cannot be a true right because enforcment would require at least the part-time enslavement of those compelled to provide the resources. (Thankfully, the statists don’t suggest conscripting doctors, nurses, and teachers.) But what about the rights of the part-time slaves?

Power Grows, Liberty Shrinks

Despite appearances, enforcement of a counterfeit right doesn’t expand liberty. On the contrary, it contracts liberty because government has to assume new powers to carry out that enforcement. Since, as noted, education and medical care are not superabundant natural resources, but the product of human effort, they are necessarily scarce. If people could take all the medical and educational services they wanted at no charge, the supply would be quickly exhausted, leaving everyone worse off. (If you really have a right to something, why must you pay for it?) If consensual market exchange is not to be allowed to manage supply and demand, the government is the only alternative. So in the name of a human right, government assumes awesome powers to allocate critical services. Politicians and bureaucrats decide who gets what and when. People have little choice but to take what they are given by the monopoly provider. In place of the clout of a paying customer, the government’s subjects have the ersatz clout of a single voter. The state’s accountability is filtered through bureaucratic misdirection and chicanery.

Call this system what you will, but don’t call it freedom or service.

Krugman tries to pin his case for government-provided medical care and education on each person’s right to make the most of his or her life. But considering the quality of government services — has he not heard about the inner-city schools? — this must be a cruel joke. The worst way to give people a shot in life is to make them wards of the state. Bureaucracies are cold and oppressive, not humane. That was once understood by some people on the left (at least in parts of the New Left). But now the Establishment Left is just an apologist for power. Too bad.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.