This past weekend, several hours before Stephen Paddock exercised his constitutional right to slaughter his fellow Americans (and no, it’s not “too soon” to talk about it), video emerged of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin talking to a high school assembly. Do you, a girl asked him, consider health care to a right or a privilege?
Johnson made his millions in the sheet-extrusion trade and with no prior political experience was elected to the Senate in 2010 in the Tea Party wave. He beat Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. He’s about as hard right as they come, at least until Roy Moore arrives and sets a new standard for wingnuttery. He’s called man-made climate change “lunacy” and said climate variations are more likely caused by “sunspot activity.” He thinks what Obama did for the Dreamers was unconstitutional. And he voted thrice recently to throw millions of people off health care. Remember when that one senator said of John McCain, after his famous thumbs down, that “he has a brain tumor right now, the vote occurred at 1:30 in the morning, so some of that might have factored in”? Yep. That was Johnson.
So he answered the young woman: “I think it’s probably more of a privilege. Do you consider food a right? Do you consider clothing a right? Do you consider shelter a right? What we have as rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have the right to freedom. Past that point, everything else is a limited resource that we have to use our opportunities given to us so that we can afford those things.”
There’s your Republican philosophy in a nutshell: Americans have no right to health care, but they do have the right to own as many assault rifles as they can get their hands on and go shoot up a concert venue.
Johnson’s view is the commonly held one among Republicans and conservative think-tank types. Rights can only be “political” rights, like the right to free speech or a speedy trial. Those are so-called unlimited goods because giving them to one individual doesn’t imply a taking away from another individual. That is, giving you more free speech doesn’t by definition mean less free speech for me.
It’s different, conservatives say, with goods that have to be purchased, because they’re finite. Subsidized housing is an obvious example. If I’m given an apartment, that means you weren’t, and neither were hundreds of other people who applied. Ditto acceptance to a fancy college.
Obviously, there’s no “right” to a public-housing unit or a spot in the freshman class at Princeton. And Johnson may be correct that there’s no right to clothing, which just sounds silly. But in fact this is crucial. Clothing isn’t like these other things, and this is exactly the point on which liberalism and conservatism clash: the extent to which your lack of something affects me and affects society.
If millions of people want to go around naked, that has no real impact on the community of clothed Americans. But if millions go hungry and need medical attention, or if millions otherwise get sick, that does impact the well-fed and healthy: It costs us, and society, a lot more money than keeping people decently fed and medically cared for in the first place. And that’s part of the reason why, along with just plain old decency, many societies have decided that some goods are rights. Some degree of medical care or public health is guaranteed to citizens in more than half the world’s constitutions.
But the Constitution, you say! It gives us only political rights. True. But we’ve changed the Constitution 17 times (after the Bill of Rights), and we can do it anytime we want. There’s nothing inherently un-American about making health care a right. We simply have to decide it’s so. According to Pew, majorities believe that providing health care is a government responsibly and have for the better part of this century (the view that it’s not a government responsibility won for about three years during Obamacare’s rough start, but now the “responsibility” view is back to a 60-38 majority). So it’s a change a majority would presumably support.
And speaking of changes a majority would support… support for banning assault weapons has fluctuated in recent years. It tends to go up after these episodes of carnage, which means that doing something might be possible, but not of course with this Congress. Ron Johnson is a part of this problem, too. He gets an A rating from the NRA and voted against the Manchin-Toomey background check bill brought up in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
And by the way: If health care is finite, as are food and clothing, why aren’t guns? They’re purchasable goods. Ah, but the Second Amendment. OK. But the Second Amendment doesn’t say anybody should have as many of any kinds of guns they want. The Supreme Court, led by Antonin Scalia, said it said that in 2008, which means that the consensus for the first 220 years of the republic was that the Second Amendment didn’t say that. And perhaps someday we’ll have a Supreme Court that will reverse Heller, and with any luck go even further and effectively get these military weapons out of the hands of regular people for good (for the record: I don’t want to take away anybody’s hunting rifles, collectors’ items, or non-assault-style pistols).
In other words, our definition of rights changes over the course of time, and rights are whatever the deliberative majority decides they are, provided their representatives are willing to carry out their wishes. But the Republicans won’t. They want 20 million people to lose health insurance, some of whom will get sick more quickly and in some cases die; and they believe all these bloodied corpses are a wholly acceptable price to pay for “freedom.” Who ever called these people the Party of Life?